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Dog’s death holds lesson for pet owners

Jake, the Morans
Jake, the Morans' Maltese, was found dead under the deck of their Miller Bay Estates home.
— image credit: Courtesy Kelly Moran

MILLER BAY ESTATES — Jake the Maltese’s mysterious death has been solved. And there’s an important lesson for pet owners.

Veterinarians and wildlife officials were puzzled by the fact that the dog was found dead with its head missing but body left behind, that there was no sign of struggle, that the dog’s body showed no signs of a fight with a predator. The owner feared Jake had been decapitated by a human, which would raise a whole other set of community concerns.

But Dr. Kristin Mansfield, a veterinarian with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, says a coyote likely killed Jake because it saw the dog as a competitor, not as food.

It’s coyote breeding season, and Mansfield said Jan. 6 that coyotes will eliminate all potential competitors. They kill their foe by biting and crushing the head; they’ll leave the body behind and will bury the head elsewhere. Mansfield saw similar coyote behavior when she was tracking a population of kit foxes in California.

“It was not uncommon to find their bodies without heads,” Mansfield said of the kit foxes. “We wouldn’t have found their heads if (the foxes) didn’t have radio collars.”

She added, “During breeding season, coyotes are very territorial and will remove any other canines. It’s breeding season between now and March, so pet owners must be more vigilant at this time.”

Mansfield advises pet owners to not let their dogs go outside unattended, particularly during evening and early morning hours.

Dr. Douglas Robinson of Apple Tree Cove Animal Hospital in Kingston said that’s good advice even outside of coyote breeding season. If you live near wildlife, don’t let your pet roam unsupervised, “particularly early morning and late evening, when predators will be out and about. And don’t leave food out that would attract bears and other predators.”

Jake was found by his owners after 6 p.m. Jan. 3 in the backyard. Jake was mostly an indoor dog but had access to the yard via a dog door. A veterinarian determined that there was some tearing on one side of the neck, indicating that Jake was killed by a large animal, possibly a coyote. But why would a predator take the head and leave the body? And Kelly Moran, Jake’s owner, was still struck by the strange circumstances surrounding Jake’s death a day later.

“My brother-in-law and I looked around the outside of the house, checked out the bushes, the garbage cans, inside the lid-covered and closed hot tub for the missing part of his body (and) possible blood stray … anything, but nothing looked out-of-place,” Moran said in an email. “The grounds around the dog door weren’t disturbed with claw marks, no little remains, hair or bones … we looked hard to find any kind of footprints, but found nothing.”

Dr. Jim Moore, a veterinarian with Apple Tree Cove Animal Hospital, examined Jake’s body Jan. 4. “Some things didn’t quite fit” after the initial exam, so he went back and did a complete exam on the body.

A closer examination of Jake’s neck revealed the underside of the throat was “shredded” with puncture wounds.

“It was a mystery at first,” Moore said. “But I’m convinced it was an animal attack.” He consulted Mansfield, who concurred and shared her experiences with coyotes and kit foxes.

Moore, too, advises owners of small dogs to “never let a small dog into a yard unattended.”

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