Experts say the animals don’t necessarily target small pups, but there are steps you can take to keep your pets safe

By Kate Hogan
Updated September 17, 2009 09:47 PM

While the recent coyote attack on Jessica Simpson’s maltipoo Daisy is devastating, unfortunately, it’s a situation that’s all too common. Ozzy Osbourne, Halle Berry and a host of other celebs have seen their pups snatched by the wolf-like creatures, right from their own backyards. “Los Angeles has had coyotes for a long time,” Dr. John Hadidian, Director of Urban Wildlife Programs at the Humane Society of the United States tells PEOPLE Pets. “They have a more established population there.”

It’s wise for anyone living in the L.A. area to be warned: given its sheer size, along with its varying climates and landscapes, California in particular offers a good habitat for coyotes. But the animals can be found all over the country – and even move into urban areas when they’re frantically looking for food. “If there’s been a drought or a fire, those are factors that give the coyote not much to eat in their natural habitat, and they have to look elsewhere,” says Animal Planet zoologist Dave Salmoni. “That’s when you find them coming to areas with people.”

Though they often dine on small rodents, rabbits, birds and even fruits and veggies, if a coyote sees a small cat or dog unattended in a backyard, it considers that animal fair game. “They’re not doing it to be mean,” Hadidian explains. “It’s business to them. Just another day they have to survive.” Adds Salmoni, “That’s a desperate animal, risking a lot for that meal.”

Surprisingly, coyotes – who are generally solitary creatures – are quite afraid of humans. If you’re with your pet and a coyote is near, chances are, it won’t pounce. But you can never be too careful. Both Hadidian and Salmoni say what’s most important is to keep your pet with you at all times, and refrain from leaving smaller dogs and cats in the backyard unattended. “Coyotes get active around nightfall, during sun up and sun down,” Hadidian says. “When it gets dark at night, you have no way of watching your pet if it’s outside alone.”

If you see your pet being attacked by a coyote, you can attempt to scare it off by yelling, banging pots and making other loud noises. But sadly, if a coyote runs off with your pet, you probably won’t see it again. “Unfortunately there’s no chance a coyote’s going to pick up a dog in front of a human and not eat it,” says Salmoni. “So it’s really all about prevention.” One solution? A fence topped by a “coyote roller,” which will cause coyotes to literally spin back off a fence if they try to climb over. But more than anything, just stay close to your pet. “Domesticated animals don’t have that survival instinct in them,” says Salmoni. “So they look to you to keep them safe.”