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October 3, 2009

What to Do About Cougars

Big cats like cougars are potentially dangerous, and there are rules to be followed when in their country

Adapted from the book Wild Neighbors

cougar

iStockphoto

Cougar (also known as mountain lions and pumas) populations are relatively small—largely due to persecution and habitat loss—but as people move further into cougar country, sightings of these solitary big cats are on the rise.

Although they are extremely rare events, the number of attacks, injuries, and even fatal encounters with cougars are increasing too.But let’s face it—an attack by any large carnivore on any human is going to make front page news. 

Where the reaction to this becomes irresponsible is in calls to “thin” cougar populations by increased hunting or deliberately planned population reductions.  Such measures are uncalled for. 

The best to approach to living with cougars begins with risk reduction in adapting our own behavior.

Common problems and solutions

How to avoid a cougar attack

Public health concerns
Resources

Common problems and solutions

At greatest risk from cougars are livestock and pets. Cougars will kill larger animals, including cattle, but they prefer young or smaller prey. Though some demonize cougars for taking domestic animals, more cattle and sheep will be lost every year to weather or disease. Cougars are, of course, an easier target for people’s wrath than most other factors. 

Pets left outside unattended are easy prey in cougar country. And even though they are rare, the potential of attacks on humans warrants concern in some parts of the country.

Tolerance

Cougars are generally shy and not seen often, although they may appear calm and confident when they come face-to-face with a human. This attitude can be alarming to people who expect all wild animals to be fearful. Understanding these animals and their habits, along with recognizing that they may be close neighbors is the first step toward living with them. Simply seeing a cougar, or signs that a cougar was in the area, is not enough of a reason to demand that the animal be removed.

How to avoid a cougar attack

Changes in your own backyard

Cougars who have attacked or injured people are usually tracked down and killed. But killing to cougars to reduce their populations won’t prevent cougar attacks. Some common-sense precautions will.

If you live in or near cougar habitat, you should take precautions to avoid inadvertently attracting them. Most people aren’t aware that they may be tempting this otherwise shy animal into close proximity with humans. Making a few changes to your landscape and your behavior can significantly reduce your chances of drawing in unwanted wild visitors—not only cougars but also bears, coyotes, and wolves.

  • Trim vegetation around your house to avoid providing cover for cougars. This doesn’t mean that your yard should be completely barren, but it shouldn't include underbrush that would allow a cougar to hide undetected. (Remember, cougars do not hunt out in the open.) 
  • Install motion-sensor lighting in areas that you may frequent in the evenings and at night. 
  • If you feed your pets outside, never leave food bowls out overnight. 
  • Keep pets and livestock indoors or safely kenneled from dusk until dawn. 
  • Common sense tells us that young children should never be allowed to play outside unsupervised.
  • Do not feed deer. They are a primary prey species and may attract cougars. 
  • Deer-proof your garden—this may include installing fencing
  • Fence in your livestock to keep them contained.
  • Store trash in sanitary, well-secured containers. Clean trash cans to avoid attracting potential prey species.
  • Don’t compost meat scraps or other foods that would attract cougars or their prey.

If you see a cougar

When living or hiking in cougar country, stay focused and alert. Always hike, jog, or bike with a partner when using back-country trails. Keep children and pets especially close. Don’t let your dog off the leash.

If you come face to face with a cougar, here are some tactics to avoid being attacked:

  • Don’t run (this can provoke an attack).
  • Try to appear larger—raise your arms or open your jacket.
  • Use an umbrella to intimidate—quickly open and close it while facing the cougar.
  • Throw rocks or sticks.
  • Make noise—yell or bang a pot.
  • Don’t approach the cougar to intimidate him. It won’t work.

If a cougar attacks

Fight back in any way that you can. People have stopped attacks by hitting the cougar with sticks, their hands, baseball caps, and garden tools.

There are no repellents that have been registered for use on cougars, but the pepper (capsaicin) sprays sold to deter attacks by dogs, bears, and people or even a fire extinguisher may be effective.

Public health concerns

Cougars don’t carry any diseases that are a threat to public health, but they can get rabies. Therefore the risk of catching rabies from cougar isn’t great; there has only been one recorded incident of an attack on a person by a rabid cougar.

Resources

» Kenneth Logan and Linda Sweanor’s Desert Puma: Evolutionary ecology and conservation of an enduring carnivore (Island Press, 2001). 
» The Mountain Lion Foundation (www.mountainlion.org)
» The Cougar Fund (www.cougarfund.org)
» Purchase a copy of Wild Neighbors; the go-to guide for useful, humane solutions to conflicts with wildlife
» If you are located within the D.C. Metro Area, take advantage of our wildlife conflict resolution service. Learn More

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