Threats - Dog Attacks

Dog attacks – what wildlife personnel face

This area of wildlife work is arguably one of the most frustrating, emotional and preventable reasons for admission into care facilities. Education in regards to responsible pet ownership is important as is keeping good communication open with dog owners as difficult as it can be sometimes. Getting angry at the dog owner achieves nothing, as there is a great likelihood they will not contact wildlife care facilities in the future. Therefore education, a cool head and keeping the lines of communication open is the best defence wildlife personnel have until legislation changes to protect all wildlife on both private and public land from domestic dog attacks.

Unfortunately long term data suggests that a large percentage of admitted dog bite patients die as a result of their injuries – successful treatment and release of dog attack injury patients is quite low.

Those that work with treatment of these koalas often take it personally that they somehow “failed” if the koala dies. This is simply not true.

The number one reason for such a high death rate results from the crushing pressure of the dog’s jaws causing immediate major trauma to the skin and underlying muscle. Continual jaw pressure and shaking of the koala causes further trauma to the internal organs, resulting in their laceration, perforation and rupture. Many koalas simply bleed out. Lacerated intestinal tracts can cause peritonitis and organ failure. In the majority of cases death occurs within a matter of hours.

It is not unusual for a wildlife carer and or vet to be presented with a koala patient, who outwardly shows minimal to no visible injuries. Subtle signs such as matted saliva on the fur and/or one or two puncture wounds may hide what the Koala Hospital calls “the iceberg effect”.

What is the Iceberg Effect? This is where a koala looks to have suffered only minor injuries, such as one or two small puncture wounds. The casual observer often states “oh he/she looks fine, there was only one tiny wound”. The reality is that internally the koala may for example have crushing pressure injuries from the dog’s canines which cause massive trauma/haemorrhage to internal organs, tissues and muscle as described previously. So the tip of the Iceberg is the tiny external wound and the bulk of the iceberg is the massive trauma internally. This scenario is exactly the same with domestic cats who catch birds, small mammals and reptiles – minimal evidence of trauma on the outside of the body but internally it’s a mess and the majority die.

It is not unusual at post mortem of a dead dog attacked koala to find one or many of the following – major haemorrhage between skin and fascia wall (external musculature surrounding abdominal cavity, chest cavity and dorsal areas), penetration/perforated of the caecum and small bowel, torn liver, ruptured vena cava (major vessels to the kidneys), ruptured/torn ureters, laceration to the spleen and so on. Penetrating injuries or crush injuries to the chest cavity can collapse lungs and lacerate the pericardium. Dogs are quite capable of fracturing ribs, arm and leg bones and even skulls.

There are koalas that suffer major dog attack trauma and survive the initial wave. Sadly many often die some days or weeks later from infection in spite of the best veterinary care.

Post mortem work is critical to both allay the fears of those who feel they have failed in treating the injured koala and to learn what truly goes on internally. It is a very important education tool for those who work with wild koalas.

Nonetheless all is not lost as most koalas with true minor injuries do indeed respond and are successfully released.

Keeping a record of what breed of dog attacks koalas (and all wildlife) is an important tool for research purposes. These records are not designed to malign a particular breed but to bring awareness to what breeds are more likely to cause injuries. This information is helpful for potential new responsible dog owners who maybe seeking a suitable breed to own or to assist current owners on ways they can avoid harm in the future. Most dog owners are happy to come on board.

The Koala Hospital has collected this data for many years. The greatest percentage of dog attack injuries to koalas in coastal northern NSW are caused by the Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Does this data reflect that the people of this region prefer Staffies over other breeds? Or are Staffordshire Bull Terriers more likely to attack wildlife? As this breed is indeed an excellent family pet, could they just be “protective of their human pack”.

With koalas continually declining throughout Australia, deaths from being attacked by domestic dogs remains an incredibly frustrating scenario as each and every attack is actually preventable if the right measures are put in place. Interestingly research has shown that attacks on koalas by wild dogs is actually quite low (there are likely reasons why this is so).

What to do to prevent koalas being attacked by domestic dogs

  1. Choose a breed that is less likely to attack wildlife
  2. Plant trees in the front of a yard (not near powerlines) in preference to backyards
  3. If koala trees are in a backyard – try to fence off where the tree or trees are to keep dogs away. Erect timber runners from the tree to the fence to allow the koala to not have to go down to the ground
  4. Koalas often walk along the tops of fences to get from A to B. It is not unusual for a bigger dog to pull the koala off the fence and attack it. Try to house your dog in a fenced area that where koala will not visit.
  5. If possible lock dogs up at night
  6. Always have your dog on lead when out on public land
  7. Keep the Koala Hospital or other wildlife agency’s 24 hour emergency number handy and call immediately if your dog attacks a koala no matter what the time
  8. Where possible wrap the koala up in a big blanket to keep warm while waiting for responders
  9. Do not be fearful you will get “into trouble” – wildlife personnel simply wish to take the koala in for treatment
Greatest threats to Koalas
How you can get involved ‘hands on’