Wild Dog Pests

A long established wild dog problem in Australia

Dog with prey

A dog with its prey

Wild dogs have been a problem in Australia since the middle of the 19th century and have been trapped, shot and baited to reduce their impact on farm livestock since then.

Wild dogs in Australia are an evolving and complex problem. Initially wild dogs were considered to be dingoes but in recent decades there has been increased interbreeding of dingoes with a wide range of lost hunting dogs and with escaped or dumped domestic dog breeds.

Dingoes came to Australia, probably from Java, some 4000 years ago and whether they are considered native or not, cross breeding between wild dogs and dingoes has put the pure dingo breed under threat.

Wild dog distribution in Australia

Wild dog distribution in Australia

Wild dogs can adapt to extreme heat and cold and occur in all habitat types on mainland Australia, including alpine, desert, temperate forests, rainforests, meadows, grasslands, agricultural and urban environments.

Wild dogs are now found from the northern tip of Australia to southern farming zones.

Impact of wild dogs

Disembowelled sheep after wild dog attack

Disembowelled sheep after wild dog attack

Wild dogs are formidable predators and have no real threats to their increasing numbers and distribution, apart from control actions by land managers.

Government studies list 79 native species as being threatened by competition and/or predation by wild dogs.

The impacts of wild dogs are so great that industry and governments have developed a National Wild Dog Action Plan to achieve a ‘best practice’ approach to effective management of wild dogs.

The Invasive Animals Cooperative Research Centre (IACRC) has also established a number of fact sheets on the wild dog problem and on methods to manage these (see http://www.pestsmart.org.au/animal-welfare/humaneness-assessment/wild-dog/ and http://www.pestsmart.org.au/have-you-got-wild-dogs/.)

A pack of wild dogs can attack animals much larger than individual dogs. Photo: Graham Wienert

A pack of wild dogs can attack animals much larger than individual dogs. Photo: Graham Wienert

Wild dogs are skilled at killing many Australian native animals and farm livestock. Unlike the fox, which tackles prey up to around their own size, wild dogs can work individually, or in packs, to attack much larger animals including calves, adult cattle and adult sheep.

Injuries are horrendous and many animals are left horribly maimed to suffer long and lingering deaths after vicious wild dog attacks. Worse still, wild dog packs can indulge in killing frenzies where more prey are killed or mauled than is necessary for immediate feed requirements. Whole flocks of sheep have been lost in a single night from frenzied dog attacks.

Dead sheep from a wild dog attack. Photo: Greg Mifsud

Dead sheep from a wild dog attack. Photo: Greg Mifsud

Wild dog attacks on livestock and pets, lethal or otherwise, also cause emotional distress to landholders.

Importantly, individual landholders suffer the financial burden of implementing wild dog management and also the emotional trauma of finding their stock torn apart, despite their best efforts to control the wandering wild dog menace.

Estimates of the impacts on the Australian economy from production losses due to livestock predation, disease transmission in livestock, and the costs associated with wild dog control range up to $60M annually. However, anecdotal industry sources estimate the economic impact to be much greater, perhaps in the hundreds of millions of dollars per annum.

Cattle much larger than an individual dog can be the victim of dog attack.

Cattle much larger than an individual dog can be the victim of dog attack.

The Northern Territory Cattlemen’s Association stated that “an estimated 60,000 calves and young weaners were killed directly or were maimed and died of wounds and infection after dog attacks during 2011-2012 at a cost of $80 million”.

Predation also limits livestock enterprise choices, such as the decision to change from sheep to cattle production in wild dog affected areas, so regional communities are affected by declining sheep numbers via lost employment opportunities.

Wild dogs and disease

Wild dogs also carry many diseases. The Australian Veterinary Emergency Plan notes that wild dogs are susceptible to African horse sickness, anthrax, Aujeszky’s disease, equine influenza, Japanese encephalitis, rabies, Rift Valley fever, screwworm fly, surra, and transmissible gastroenteritis.

Rabies is a key exotic disease risk for Australia and wild dogs are ideal maintenance hosts for this virus.

Wild dogs can also act as a reservoir for endemic parasites and diseases that affect livestock, wildlife and domestic pets, including distemper, hepatitis, hydatids, mange, Neospora caninum, parvovirus and sheep measles.

The dog tapeworm, Echinococcus granulosus – the cause of hydatids – has a well-established sylvatic lifecycle between wild dogs and macropod marsupials with other hosts (foxes) and intermediate hosts (pigs, wombats) playing a lesser role.

Biology of wild dogs in Australia

The wild dog population in Australia comprises two subspecies: Dingoes (Canis lupus dingo) and Feral dogs (Canis lupus familiaris), as well as hybrids of the two.

Although individual wild dogs can weigh up to 70 kg, most wild dogs weigh less than 20 kg.

Wild dogs live in family groups and mark out territorial boundaries by defecating and urinating scents. Though often only seen as individuals or pairs, wild dogs are usually organised into distinct social groups consisting of a dominant ‘alpha’ male and female and their offspring of various ages. These packs maintain and defend territories that have minimal overlap with those of neighbouring packs. The home ranges of individual wild dogs vary between 10 and 300 Km2 depending on habitat. Packs are usually stable but under certain conditions some will disperse to new ranges.

While wild dogs generally stay in and around the home ranges, recent extensive studies using satellite tracking and data logging GPS collars have revealed that some dogs can undertake long one-way or return journeys that can be up to hundreds of kilometres. These studies have also shown that within a habitat, wild dogs occupy and use all of the geography and not just the ridge lines or creek beds, as has been previous wisdom.

Control actions must address the entire landscape.

Most landholders underestimate the true scale of the wild dog populations and it is a mistake to think that there are just a small number of old rogue dogs to be controlled. Wild dogs have no regard for fence lines and title boundaries, so a “nil tenure” approach is essential to effective management.

Wild dogs also pose a threat to humans and have been implicated in vicious attacks on children. This risk is likely to become greater unless wild dog populations are depleted.

Traditional wild dog control

A wild dog trapped in a soft-jaw trap. Photo: Chris Thomas

A wild dog trapped in a soft-jaw trap. Photo: Chris Thomas

Traditionally, wild dogs have been controlled using snare or soft jaw traps, by baiting and shooting and by fencing off vast areas of valued grazing country.

Fences are expensive to maintain and wild dogs are now on both sides of the barrier in some regions. Shooting and trapping can be effective locally, but are expensive and may take only a proportion of the population present. Wild dogs are notoriously cryptic and so not always easy to track or sight in thick country.

While all these methods have been increased in recent years, the wild dog problem continues to expand and it is recognised that the use of poison baits must be included as a part of a best practice integrated approach to deplete the wild dog menace.

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