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Distinguishing between Coyotes, Wolves and Dogs

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Coyotes and Wolves by SIGHT

photos of coyote and wolf

These two animals have similar coat colors, but different facial characteristics. The coyote on the left has a narrow snout and small nose pad, with large ears relative to its head size. The wolf on the right has a broad snout and large nose pad, with small ears relative to its head size. IMPORTANT: Wolf pups in mid-summer and fall can closely resemble coyotes, and it can be nearly impossible to tell them apart.

  COYOTE (Canis latrans) GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)
Face Narrow and pointed; small nose pad Broad and blocky; large nose pad
Ears Taller and pointed Short and rounded
Shoulder Height 21 - 24 inches 26 - 32 inches
Length 3.5 - 4.5  feet (nose to tail tip) 4.5 - 6.5 feet (nose to tail tip)
Weight 15-50 pounds 70-150 pounds
Coat Gray or reddish brown, often grizzled, often with whitish throat, chest, and/or belly Grizzled gray is most common, but can also be mostly or all black; white or cream coats rare outside far northern populations

Coyotes and Wolves by SOUND

COYOTE (Canis latrans)

  • Voice typically higher pitched
  • Howls shorter, rising and falling in pitch
  • Usually interspersed with yips, yaps, and barks

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

  • Voice typically lower in pitch
  • Howling tends to be long and drawn-out
  • Can also include growls and barks
 

Coyotes and Wolves by SIGN

Tracks

COYOTE (Canis latrans)

coyote track in mud
  • 2.25 - 2.75 inches long, by 1.75 - 2.5 inches wide
  • Crisp edges, especially in summer when less hair is present
  • Long axes of the toes typically parallel
  • Main pad of hind feet distinctly different than that of fore feet
  • Claws of outer toes may not register

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

wolf track in snow
  • 4 - 5.5 inches long, by 3.75 - 5 inches wide
  • Very robust, especially in winter when extra hair is present between toes
  • Inner toes appear bigger than in coyote tracks
  • Outer toes, especially on fore feet, may tend to splay
  • All four claws typically show in tracks
 

Scats

COYOTE (Canis latrans)

coyote scat
  • Usually less than 1 inch in diameter
  • May contain ungulate hair, but more typically contain hair and small bone fragments from rodents, rabbits
  • Smoother, shinier appearance than wolf scat
  • May taper to a point at one end

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

wolf scat
  • Diameter ranges from .5 - 1.5 inches, but usually greater than 1 inch
  • Often cord-like; may contain ungulate hair and bone fragments
  • Generally taper to a point at one end
 

Dogs and Wolves

Distinguishing dogs from wolves can be challenging. Many of the traits possessed by wolves can also be found in domestic dogs, so no single trait should be used to definitively distinguish a dog from a wolf. When observing an animal, it is desirable to consider as many of the following traits as possible, including the animal’s behavior. Wild wolves will almost never approach a human.

Ears

DOG (Canis lupus familiaris)

head of domestic dog
  • Usually large relative to head size
  • Often pointed tips

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

head of gray wolf
  • Small relative to head size
  • Tips more rounded
 

Tail

DOG (Canis lupus familiaris)

domestic dog
  • May curl upward especially when running or trotting
  • No scent gland spot

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

wolf with arrow indicating black spot on back of tail
  • Does not curl upward even when running
  • Precaudal scent gland marked with dark hair (may not be visible in darker animals)
 

Chest

DOG (Canis lupus familiaris)

dog chest
  • Chest is broad so legs are separated
  • Feet typically not splayed

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

wolf
  • Chest is very narrow so legs are close together
  • Feet may splay outward
 

Eyes

DOG (Canis lupus familiaris)

blue dog eyes
  • Less slanted
  • May be blue in color

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

slanted, yellow wolf eyes
  • Inner corners tend to slant downward
  • Never blue in color
 

Scats

DOG (Canis lupus familiaris)

domestic dog scat
  • Size can vary greatly
  • Has a consistent appearance due to the consistency of commercial dog food
  • Often lacks a tapered end

GRAY WOLF (Canis lupus)

wolf scat
  • Diameter ranges from .5 - 1.5 inches, but usually greater than 1 inch
  • Often cord-like; may contain ungulate hair and bone fragments
  • Generally taper to a point at one end
 

Tracks

pattern key
dog track pattern
wolf track pattern
 

It can be impossible to distinguish a large dog from a wolf from a single track. Instead, if possible look for the pattern of the trail left by the animal. Dogs’ pattern of walking reflects their domestic lifestyle. They do not rely on stealth, and tend to walk erratically. Their hind foot tracks seldom register within their forefoot tracks. They may also approach strange objects directly. Wolves on the other hand, tend to walk more directly when travelling. Their trails reflect this, as the track of the hind foot is placed within or directly in front of the forefoot. Wolves will also approach strange objects cautiously, often circling widely to investigate rather than approaching directly.

Thanks to Adirondack Almanack; Alderleaf Wilderness College; California Wolf Center; Cook County Coyote Project; Andy Dobos – Three Red Trees School of Natural Living; Jim Halfpenny (A Field Guide to Mammal Tracking in North America); Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management; Iron Pride Alaskan Malamutes; Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks; Richard Badger Photography; Western Wildlife Outreach; and Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary for images and/or content.



Wildlife Investigations Lab
1701 Nimbus Road Suite D, Rancho Cordova, CA 95670
(916) 358-2790 | WILAB@wildlife.ca.gov


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