Top 10 Animal Threats to Your Pet

In the human-pet world, humans tend get off easy when it comes to bites.

While we usually have to fend off only the seasonal mosquito or spider, our furry and not-so furry friends can face serious danger in parks or in their own back yards.

This week, one of the largest pet health insurers in the country -- Veterinary Pet Insurance Co. -- released the most common wildlife attack claims of 2008.

From the dreaded porcupine to Arizona's rare javelina, pets from coast to coast face different threats. Although not on the list, VPI received claims for injuries caused by goats, beavers, woodchucks, black bears, mountain lions, hawks, rabbits, sea urchins and a jellyfish.

VPI couldn't include the most common bite -- those from other pets -- but it did comment on how expensive these wildlife encounters can be.

"Costs can range from hundreds of dollars for bandages or stitches to thousands of dollars for surgery for damaged organs or broken limbs," the company wrote in a press release.

The following is a list of the most common animals to attack pets, as well as advice from veterinarians about how to protect your beloved dog or cat.

Pet Biter No. 1: Snakes

Although the whole country has snakes, veterinarians say snakes only pose a big problem for pets in certain states.

"In Colorado and Arizona, we see a lot of snake bites -- but those are often dogs coming unleashed in an area where snakes are," said Elizabeth Rozanski, assistant professor of emergency and critical care at Tufts University's Foster Hospital for Small Animals in North Grafton, Mass.

That means most pet owners can rest easy about a rattlesnake on their front porch every morning. But it doesn't mean an owner should ignore a limping dog after a snake bite.

The bite could be from a nonpoisonous snake, or it could be from a coral snake or a pit viper -- the two main types of poisonous snakes in the United States.

Coral snakes tend to bite only when provoked but, as Rozanski pointed out, pit vipers can be quite aggressive if they perceive a threat.

Pit vipers include rattlesnakes, copperheads and the cottonmouth moccasin, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia.

VPI reported paying for antivenom, which can counteract the toxins in most types of snake venom, so there must be a good ending for some of the claims.

Pet Biter No. 2: the Coyote

Of all the animals on VPI's list, veterinarians say the coyote is most likely to attack out of aggression, not self-defense.

In fact, coyotes might be hunting your favorite pet.

"Coyotes definitely do attack. Unfortunately, what coyotes do is kill cats, not injure them, usually," said Rozanski. "If you're in an area that there's coyotes around, that's definitely a cause for concern."

The adult coyote weighs about 30 pounds and can run 30 miles per hour on a hunt, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia. That may be a large match for a small dog or cat.

Recently, a community outside Denver decided to go after aggressive coyotes with paintballs to keep them away.

Once much more prevalent in deserts and prairies, coyotes have expended their range as humans eradicated their top predators and deforested more areas. Now, pet owners in New England may come across a coyote.

Luckily, the animals give plenty of warning that they're in the area. Just listen for the howls and yelps in the evening, or look for two little reflective eyes. While they do attack pets, coyotes usually hunt rodents and eat carrion or small birds.

But if you see two or more coyotes together, chances are they are on the hunt. So keep your favorite furry friend close.

Pet Biter No. 3: Raccoons

A raccoon may not be as aggressive as a coyote toward your family pet, but veterinarians say it's important to be extra vigilant around a raccoon bite.

"Bats, skunks, raccoons and foxes, depending on where you are in the United States, are the major carriers of rabies," said Ann Hohenhaus, veterinarian with the Animal Medical Center in New York City.

Hohenhaus recommended that pet owners try to track down an attacking raccoon to get it tested, and of course to keep pets up to date with the rabies vaccine.

The raccoon is found in most parts of North America, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia. Even city dwellers may come across the animal.

But despite the rabies risk, Rozanski said it's rare that a raccoon will attack.

"It's more likely that the raccoon will be attacked [and retaliate], than the other way around," she said.

"The one other thing to at least consider is bats," Rozanski added.

Bats get into many houses from open windows or chimneys. Even a housecat might try to eat a bat, which can bring risk even if the cat is not injured.

"You don't have to have a bite to get rabies because it can be carried in the saliva," said Rozanski.

Pet Biter No. 4: Squirrel

Many a suburban child has been wowed by the grace and beauty of a common squirrel scaling the bark of a maple tree, at least until Sparky gets maimed by the little rodent.

Squirrels cover most of the world, except Australia and Antarctica, and range in size from five inches, the African pygmy squirrel, to 3 feet long, the Indian giant squirrel, according to National Geographic.

But it doesn't take a giant squirrel to cause some damage. Their small size makes them a tasty treat for carnivorous house pets, but their agility and small but sharp claws make them a tricky meal to catch.

VPI reported that squirrels were the fourth-most common wildlife to attack pets.

But veterinarians treating animals were a little dubious.

"It doesn't make any sense to me. Most of my patients would rip a squirrel limb from limb," said Hohenhaus. "It may be that the dog starts to run after the squirrel and the squirrel hauls off and bites them."

Rozanski agreed.

"The only time we see squirrels bit anybody [is if] if they [a dog or cat] corner a squirrel, they may bite," Rozanski said.

Squirrels also have an especially keen group mentality, using a whistling call to warn others of incoming danger, which helps them avoid run-ins with pets.

Pet Attacker No. 5: Scorpion

Every single scorpion attack claim on VPI's database was in Arizona, so that may leaves the other 49 states (perhaps except Hawaii) to breathe easier.

"[With] scorpions, those aren't really anybody's fault," said Rozanski, saying stings likely are a pet's fault for pursuing the critter or a human's fault for letting a pet run wild.

Thirty to 40 species of scorpion can kill a human being with their poison, according to National Geographic. However, scorpion venom generally is tailored to its environment and can inflict serious damage on a range of curious domesticated animals.

These arachnids typically eat insects, but their strong survival tactics allow them live in a variety of conditions and environments.

National Geographic even claims that researchers have kept frozen scorpions overnight, thawed them in the sun and watched them go on like nothing ever happened. Scorpions possess the ability to tremendously slow their metabolism, allowing some species to survive on as little as one insect per year.

Pet Attacker No. 6: Javelina

The name javelina comes from the Spanish term for sword and accurately represents the sharp tusks this pig-like mammal can use to pierce the skin of other animals.

Also known as a collared peccary, the javelina uses its downward-curved tusks to furiously fight off predators, but generally not to hunt, according to Encyclopedia.com.

This small wild animal eats roots, insects and reptiles alike, though some peccaries have more vicious teeth, allowing them to hunt small animals. The peccary typically is found in the Southwest, as well as Central and South America.

As with the scorpion, VPI only reported javelina attacks in Arizona. The account of one attack, posted on VPI's Web site, talked of a yelp, and then an owner who ran ahead on a hiking trail and "found our dog unmoving, with two adult javelinas ready to attack again."

The owners then discovered baby javelinas and shooed away the two protective parents.

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the incident wasn't the javelina's tusks, but the distance to the nearest veterinary clinic -- nearly two hours away from the hiking trail in the Santa Rita Mountains.

Although less likely to become a top 10, Hohenhaus said vets in the West often have to deal with similar rare and serious attacks from mountain lions and bears.

Pet Attacker No. 7: Porcupine

The barbed, loosely embedded hairs that that coat the skin of the porcupine are the first things that come to mind when most people think about this prickly rodent. The quills are so loosely embedded in the North American porcupine that they may fly out and lodge in an attacker even if contact has not been made, according to the Columbia Encyclopedia.

Although listed No.7 by VPI, veterinarians said porcupines cause some of the most common injuries in the Northeast.

"Veterinarians spend a lot of time in rural areas pulling porcupine quills out of animals," said Hohenhaus. "I've spent a few afternoons doing that and it takes forever. It's hundreds of quills smashed into your dog."

But veterinarians were quick to point out that porcupines are not the aggressors in "quillings," as they call them.

For instance, Rozanski said she never treats a dog with a quills in an attack area, such as the hind leg, but always in the front, as if it was hunting the porcupine.

"A porcupine is very exciting for a dog because they're strange looking, they're slow moving and you can catch them," said Rozanski.

"But they can get really sick from the quills, and they can go into the skin and migrate, they can go into the chest and cause problems," Rozanski said. "They can cause lots and lots of bad things."

"If you're going to let your dog run free in the woods, we don't have a problem with that -- it's fun -- just be aware they can get injured," she added.

Pet Attacker No. 8: Groundhog

New York's Mayor Bloomberg isn't the only creature that's been assaulted by a groundhog. This February, on the groundhog's own holiday, Staten Island Chuck bit Bloomberg on television.

These furry meteorologists are actually a member of the squirrel family, and will bite and claw their way out of a predator's grasp, such as an overzealous beagle, despite being herbivores. Though gardeners from Bill Murray in "Caddyshack" to Martha Stewart might approve of the family hound chasing them off, the sharp claws they use to tunnel beneath suburban lawns can cause some serious damage.

Because these ground dwellers typically like areas where forest meets field, according to National Geographic, newer housing developments that have cleared previously untouched land have pitted them against a variety of outdoor pets.

Rozanski said she hasn't heard of many groundhog attacks, but like 80 percent of the animals on this list, it's most likely the case of a curious pet getting too close for comfort.

"We'll see kicks by horses a lot or kicked by cow, those things are relatively common, as well," Rozanski said. "Knowing your animal and then keeping the animal from annoying other animals is a good way to keep them safe."

Pet Attacker No. 9: Skunk

Pepe Le Pew may have been a harmless womanizer, but in reality the average skunk can really ruin your pet's day. They are actually sometimes kept as pets but only after their scent glands, which produce a putrid-smelling, oily, yellowish liquid, have been removed.

Their nauseating defense mechanism often proves foul enough to teach other animals a lesson they won't forget. But the potential for defense doesn't stop there, as skunks possess sizable claws that are intended for digging but can cause some serious damage.

Rozanski said skunks are much more likely to spray than to get into a physical encounter, but it is possible.

The skunk's aggressive nature comes from its surprising carnivorousness. Though they are technically omnivorous and will eat vegetables, the skunk typically takes down small rodents and insects, according the Columbia Encyclopedia.

While the skunk weighs only 6 to 14 pounds and likely would not kill a larger dog, veterinarians pointed out that skunks are a frequent carrier of rabies.

"Just be sure that your dog and cat that goes outdoors is protected against rabies," said Hohenhaus.

Pet Attacker No 10: Rat

Aggressive, intelligent and gluttonous, rats will do what it takes to protect themselves when threatened.

Through stories of rats eating children in classics like "The Jungle," and even recent reports of infants found with hundreds of rat bites, this rodent has got a bad reputation.

The genus Rattus actually contains hundreds of different species, and the common house rat is most likely to put the hurt on your beloved pooch. Because of their scavenger nature and desire for warm shelter, rats are likely to come into contact not only with pets but with people as well.

But even New York City veterinarian Hohenhaus had a hard time believing that rats made the top 10 list of animals that cause injuries to pets.

"I've never treated a rat bite," said Hohenhaus, who said she would guess a dog with a rat bite would more likely get it trying to hunt the rat than in any form of aggression.

Rozinski agreed.

"I've never heard of a rat biting a dog, but I think people might make that up," said Rozinski.

As for cats, Hohenhaus said, she's never treated one for rodent bites.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the largest rats grow to about 10 inches and weigh no more than a pound. Rats may not be such a threat to pets, but their aggressive nature and ability to carry diseases such as typhus and tularemia have made them one dreaded animal.

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