Distinguishing between Coyotes, Wolves and Dogs

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Between September 20 and 26, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) received three separate reports of a gray wolf with a purple collar in northern Ventura County. CDFW staff began site inspections and have confirmed recent wolf tracks in the vicinity.

Though CDFW does not have forensic evidence to confirm this at this time, the wolf could be OR-93. The recent reports match the description of OR-93, who was fitted with a purple tracking collar by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs in Oregon in June 2020. The collar was monitored by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW), but it stopped transmitting in April. More here

It’s harder than you think, especially if you see a wolf cub which is about the same size as a coyote. Here are some distinguishing features courtesy of Wildlife California.

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)
FaceNarrow and pointed; small nose padBroad and blocky; large nose pad
EarsTaller and pointedShort and rounded
Shoulder Height21 – 24 inches26 – 32 inches
Length3.5 – 4.5  feet (nose to tail tip)4.5 – 6.5 feet (nose to tail tip)
Weight15-50 pounds70-150 pounds
CoatGray or reddish brown, often grizzled, often with whitish throat, chest, and/or bellyGrizzled 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.