Long summer days in Colorado are perfect for extended hikes and bike rides with Fido beyond the end of the cul-de-sac. Weekends are made for family trips into the mountains where no one's around and the dog can run unfettered. But pet owners might want to rethink the unfettered part.
The Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife (CPW) recommends keeping dogs on a leash at all times. This may defeat the purpose of a walk in the woods and the freedom of being away from the constraints of city life, but a dog off-leash in the backcountry or on a trail just outside of town can spell trouble - or dinner - to coyotes, mountain lions, and even moose.
Last October, for example, a Summit County resident lost the family pooch to a moose, all because the owner was walking the dog without a leash.
"Colorado's moose population is growing," said Mike Porras, of CPW's Grand Junction office. Last year's numbers show 1,650 moose across the state, an increase of 70 animals in two years, and encounters are becoming more frequent.
"The moose is one of the most dangerous animals," said Porras.
Moose equate dogs with wolves, which are their natural predators. If harassed, a moose will try to stomp a dog or chase it.
"The dog naturally runs back to its master, and the moose sees humans as part of the pack," he explained. Once a moose enters the scene, the picnic's over.
"When you see a moose, turn and run as fast as you can," Porras advised. But to avoid this kind of encounter, he said, keep your dog on a leash.
Sarah Carter, who works at Antlers Veterinary Hospital west of Silt, agrees. Carter doesn't see a lot of pets injured by backyard encounters with coyotes or mountain lions.
"The bigger problem," she said, "is people wanting to let their dogs run loose."
Carter cited instances of dogs chasing cattle and of backcountry conflicts with Great Pyrenees and Akbash dogs that guard herds of sheep. She advises newcomers to the area to do their homework before moving in.
"One of our mainstays is hunting and ranching as a way of life," she said. "If this doesn't appeal to your lifestyle, you need to be in a more urban place."
Dogs often get the short end of the stick, so to speak, when chasing wildlife.
Dr. Rocky Meese, small animal veterinarian at Glenwood Veterinary Clinic, said dogs tend to get swiped by bears or injured by deer. "The dog chases the deer and the deer turns around and gores the dog," he explained.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, just over 56,000 people live in Garfield County, an increase of 8 percent in 10 years. Most people live close to towns, but fenced-in pets are not immune from wildlife encounters.
"It's not like pets are being snatched out of the owner's hands," said Porras. Numbers are sketchy because it's hard to tell exactly why a small household animal disappears. "Wildlife gets blamed," explained Meese, "but it could be cars or dogs."
Coyotes killed a Labradoodle in Aspen recently, and a mountain lion took down a pet dog near Sunlight Mountain Resort last year. "The owner let the dog out at night," said Porras. "The lion came running out of nowhere, picked up the dog, and ran off with it."
Sarah Carter told a similar story of a pet mauled by a mountain lion near Silt.
"The people moved from Denver to Silt Mesa and left their dog out at night."
Outdoor cats are also part of the food chain for coyotes and cougars. And, remember the mouse, lizard or woodpecker that kitty left on the doormat last week? Housecats are just like mountain lions, only smaller.
As predators, said Porras, housecats "devastate large numbers of birds."
But, Carter, Meese and Porras all agree that the bigger issue is learning how to live with wildlife, noting that the animals, including pets, are not to blame.
Housing and industrial development continues to encroach upon wildlife habitat. Humans continue to feed wild animals - directly and indirectly - despite warnings to the contrary.
Porras said bears, coyotes, moose, and mountain lions are not running around looking for dogs and cats to eat.
"But when pets are in wildlife habitat and acting like prey," he warned, "wildlife will do what wildlife does."
For more information about pets and wildlife, visit the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife website at wildlife.state.co.us.