When asked "what do hawks eat?" many birders will respond with rodents, insects, fish or even carrion, and while these are often preferred prey, they aren't the only potential meals for these birds. Many birds of prey regularly hunt small animals, and they won't distinguish between a wild creature and a beloved pet. But do hawks eat dogs and cats? Many pet owners fear for their pets when raptors are in the area, but there are easy steps every pet owner can take to protect their animal from becoming prey.
Pets at Risk from Raptors
The pets most at risk from hungry birds of prey are small animals that spend time outdoors unsupervised. While bird attacks on pets are not common, birds have been recorded as attacking:
- Small dogs and puppies, especially toy breeds
- Small cats and kittens
- Guinea pigs
- Pet ducks or chickens
Any small pet, however, can be at risk from a bird attack. Large raptors will routinely attack animals that weigh up to 20 pounds as part of a hunt. Many birds of prey will attack even larger animals, even humans, if the bird feels its nest or young is threatened.
Raptors That Hunt Pets
Birds of prey do not hunt for sport and they do not simply seek to terrorize other animals for fun or games. When a raptor attacks, it is either seeking food or protecting its territory, usually around a nesting area. The birds of prey most noted for attacking pets include:
- Great horned owls
- Northern goshawks
Smaller backyard hawks, such as the Cooper's hawk and sharp-shinned hawk, will not usually attack a pet unless they are exceptionally desperate. These hawks typically hunt much smaller game, such as mice or small songbirds. Nevertheless, any hawk, owl or falcon may attack a pet under the right – or wrong – circumstances.
Protecting Your Pets From Birds of Prey
There are several easy steps pet owners can take to protect their pets from bird attacks.
- Supervise Pets: Stay outside with your pet at all times. A hunting raptor is less likely to attack a small animal when a much larger one (its owner) is nearby. To be effective, you need to be just as visible from the air as your pet is when out in the yard, not under a canopy, umbrella or roof. It is most effective to stay relatively close to your pet, especially in a large yard or other broad area.
- Keep Pets Contained: Provide a caged run or other enclosure with a roof for pets that are outside unsupervised. This gives the pet freedom to be outdoors but protects it from aerial attacks. Runs without roofs are not effective at deterring bird attacks. Roofs also provide shade and additional security to keep pets more comfortable and safe from other threats.
- Provide Cover: If a covered run is not available but a pet must be left outdoors, position the pet in an area where trees and shrubs provide natural cover to conceal the pet from the air. This also provides shade and better comfort for outdoor pets. Denser cover will also make it more difficult for a hunting raptor to plan and execute an effective attack without maneuvering space.
- Exercise Pets Together: If you have more than one pet, exercise them outdoors together. A raptor is much less likely to attack when other animals are present because the bird will be concerned about extra animals defending their companion or stealing the kill.
- Train Pets: Teach pets not to molest birds of any size. A dog that chases birds, for example, is much less likely to be wary of an approaching raptor. Even if a dog or cat is only being playful or curious when investigating nearby birds, the bird may see that as a threat and could attack.
- Avoid Ground Feeding Birds: Avoid feeding doves, quail and other birds that eat on the ground or low feeders. These types of birds are most likely to attract larger hawks, and a hunting hawk can just as likely target a pet as a wild feeding bird.
- Feed Pets Indoors: A pet that is gulping a meal will not be aware of a hunting predator and could be more vulnerable to an attack. Untended pet food will also attract other animals such as mice, rats, raccoons and squirrels that will themselves attract hunting raptors. Once a raptor defines an area as a productive hunting ground, it will continue to return to that food source, potentially endangering pets.
The best thing a pet owner can do to safeguard their companions against bird attacks is to be aware of birds in the area. If raptors are known to nest or roost nearby, avoid walking or exercising pets in that area. In extreme cases of highly aggressive birds, pet owners can contact local wildlife management officials for an evaluation of whether or not the bird can be deterred or relocated if necessary.
Note: All birds of prey are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and it is illegal to injure, capture, or kill any raptor, or to disturb its nest or offspring. Protecting one's pet is not an acceptable defense claim for harming a bird, and pet owners may be subject to fines or other penalties if they harm wild birds.
Other Benefits to Protecting Pets
In addition to protecting pets from hawks, owls and other raptors, taking steps to keep a pet safe will help them avoid other hazards. Birds of prey are not the only hunters that will target pets, and protected pets are much safer from coyotes, foxes, bears and other predators. A protected pet is also less likely to be harmed by malicious humans or to encounter other neighborhood dangers, such as busy streets or untended rodent poison.
Though rare, bird attacks on pets do happen, and hawks may eat pets if they have the opportunity. Pet owners who know how to protect their pets can enjoy their companionship without fear of attacks from above.