Coyote Tracks and Prints and How To Recognize Them

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Published on November 7, 2021
Last Updated on May 19, 2024

This article was fact-checked in December 2023 by coyote expert Jonathan Way who runs the website Eastern Coyote Research

Coyotes use their paws in every aspect of their daily life, from traveling across different or difficult terrain to hunting and foraging for food.

A coyote’s paw prints are relatively easy to identify once you know how to tell the difference between different canine species. Although coyote paw prints appear similar to domestic dogs and wild canines like the gray wolf, they are distinguishable by various features, like the size and shape of their paw pads and toes.

Coyotes are digitigrades, meaning they walk on their toes. Walking on their toes gives coyotes the advantage of agility and stealthiness. Coyotes are quiet, swift, and speedy walkers. Because the coyote walks on its toes, they leave very light prints on the ground. 

Overview Of Coyote Feet

Coyotes live a very active lifestyle in the wild. They constantly travel, hunt prey, forage for food, dig burrows, and fight to defend themselves. Their hardy paws are necessary for all these activities and much more.

Coyote paws resemble other wild canine paws, like the gray wolf. They are small, with four front-facing toes, a triangular-shaped paw pad, and sharp claws about half an inch long. 

Western coyote paws measure 2 1/2 inches long and 2 inches wide, slightly bigger than their back paws, which measure 2 1/4 inches long and 1 3/4 inches wide. Eastern coyote or coywolf paws are sizably bigger and are often 3.5 inches long.

The top of their paw is covered in fur, with skin between each toe that helps them swim, walk on top of snow, and stabilize themselves on uneven terrain

Coyote walking on the ground covered in leaves.

Source Unspsh.com 

A coyote’s paw pads have plenty of traction, which is excellent for running in the snow. In addition to their paw pads, coyotes have dewclaws, which help them stabilize themselves when walking on slippery ice or moss-covered rocks.

A dew claw is an incomplete fifth toe on the side of the canine’s inner foot. It is only half as long as a coyote’s regular claws, measuring a quarter-inch long. These claws are comparable to human thumbs.

Fun Fact: Coyotes bite or lick their claws to clean them. They regularly bite the interior of their paw pads to remove dirt, debris, or splinters.

What Do Coyote Footprints Look Like? 

An average adult coyote’s single footprint is approximately 2.5 inches long and 2 inches wide. However, Eastern coyotes are larger than their western counterparts and can leave footprints up to an inch longer. 

Illustration  of coyote print in snow with measurements indicated along with a comparison of the western coyote's average 2.5 inch print and the eastern coyote's average 3.5 inch print.

Photo credit: Jonathan Way

Coyote footprints generally look like imprints of their paw pads, which each have four long, ovular-shaped, front-facing toes, usually with claws visible. Coyote toes are also tightly compact, with very little space between their toes and paw pads.

Well-trained eyes can identify exactly which coyote foot left which footprint. Hind paws are smaller than their front paws. 

There is sometimes also a slight lead toe/claw, usually the inner toe, which is a clue as to whether it is a right or left foot. This leading toe print tends to be more elongated than the other toes, hinting at the canid’s direction of movement.

Coyote print in wet sand next to a human hand for size comparison.

Photo credit: Jonathan Way

Comparing Coyote, Wolf, and Dog Footprints

The coyote’s footprint strongly resembles others in the canine family, particularly those of the domestic dog and gray wolf. 

The primary way to tell the difference between coyotes and other canines is by looking at the toe shape and general size of the track. Coyotes have longer, more oval- or pointy-shaped toes, while dogs and wolves leave more stubby, rounded ones. 

Dogs and wolves also leave larger footprints, but it may be difficult to tell without comparing them side-by-side!

Illustration of the size difference between a coyote, large dog, and wolf tracks.
Source: Illinois Department of Natural Resources and the National Great Rivers Research and Education Center 

Another way to differentiate coyote tracks is the visible starfish-like shape between their toes and paw pad, as opposed to the simpler curved line of dogs and wolves.

Comparison of a coyote print and a dog print.
Coyote track photo credit: David~O via Flickr.com
Dog track photo credit: Aitor Fernández Arizmendi via Flickr.com
Editing by Floofmania.com

However, this “starfish-vs-curved-line” method isn’t always accurate. Many factors, such as terrain, movement speed, and size and weight of the canine, can affect the exact shape of the animal’s footprint.

Wolf tracks in the snow next to a human hand for size comparison.
Wolf tracks with a “starfish” in the middle, but very large–too big to be a coyote’s!
Photo credit: Jonathan Way

Lastly, you can check the tracks or their trail of footprints, giving clues as to which canine is nearby.

What Do Coyote Tracks Look Like? 

From walking to trotting to galloping and loping, each of a coyote’s movements makes a slightly different set of tracks.

Generally, coyotes walk in a straight line and “single track,” which means their hind feet step precisely where their front feet did. This results in a straight and narrow line of paw prints, especially when compared to dog tracks, which often go in a meandering direction.

The average distance between the footprints of a coyote ranges from 8 to 16 inches but varies according to their movement speed (e.g., walking vs. trotting vs. running) and animal body size.

Tracks of four coyotes in the snow. The tracks make straight lines.
Tracks of a pack of four coyotes
Photo credit: Coywolf by Jonathan Way

Comparing Coyote Tracks to Other Similar Animals

While knowing how to identify individual footprints is impressive, it’s more practical to learn how to identify tracks since you are more likely to encounter these in the field. 

Let’s look at some tracks that you will more likely confuse with those of coyote!

Since coyotes’ footprints are closest to wolves and domestic dogs, it’s reasonable to assume their tracks are similar. However, this isn’t the case.

Wolves have much larger paw prints that are wider apart from each other.

Wolf tracks in the snow.
Wolf tracks.
Photo credit: Yellowstone National Park via Flickr.com

Meanwhile, domestic dogs enjoy wandering more and are less concerned with saving energy, so they will leave scattered, non-linear circular tracks.

Other animals with tracks that most closely resemble coyotes are those of foxes, bobcats, and mountain lions.

Fox tracks in the snow.
Fox tracks. 
Photo credit: Ed Dunens via Flickr.com

Despite the similar single-tracking, you can tell if tracks belong to a fox instead of a coyote because of their smaller size, clarity, and occasional disruptions.

Fox tracks are not only smaller than coyotes, but they sometimes show pounce marks from when the fox dives after prey. They also tend to become less defined during the winter since foxes grow fur on their feet for protection from the cold (and snow). They are also much lighter than coyotes (e.g., about 10 vs. 30 pounds), which affects how deep their feet sink into the snow.

Like fox tracks, bobcat tracks are smaller than those of a coyote, typically only 1.5-2.5 inches long. They also have shorter strides than the canine and may be less perfect, showing occasional staggering.

They also have a different shape. As opposed to the coyote’s oval-shaped footprints with claw marks, bobcats have rounder footprints with no claw marks due to the feline’s ability to retract their claws.

Bobcat tracks in the snow.
Bobcat tracks.
Photo credit: Alan Schmierer via Flickr.com

Lastly, coyote tracks can be confused with mountain lion tracks. 

However, cougar tracks are larger and closer in size to wolf tracks, with the same wider gait. They also have the rounded, claw-less footprints characteristic of felines.

Mountain lion paw print in snow.
Mountain lion print.
Photo credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Headquarters via Flickr.com
SizeFootprint ShapeTrack Description
Coyote(Eastern Coyote)2.5 inches (3.5 inches)Ovular-shaped, front-facing toes, usually with claws visible.Straight line
Wolf4-5 inchesMore stubby, rounded toes compared to coyote. Also much bigger.Straight line but with a wider distance between the left and right paws
Domestic DogDepends on speciesMore stubby, rounded toes compared to coyoteScattered and circular
Fox1.5-2.5 inchesOvular-shaped, toes pointing forward, large gap between toes and paw padStraight line with occasional evidence of pouncing
Bobcat1.5-2.5 inchesRounder footprints, no claw marksStraight line, but may show occasional staggering
Mountain Lion3.5-4.5 inchesRounder footprints, no claw marksStraight line but with wider distance between left and right paws

Where Can You See Coyote Tracks?

While medium-sized canine tracks in a residential area are almost certainly from a coyote (if not a dog), it can get more challenging to identify them in areas with heavier animal foot traffic, such as in forests and woodlands. In those places, it’s more likely you’ll confuse them with fox or possibly wolf tracks!

Coyotes live across the United States, from grasslands to urban areas. Therefore, it’s possible to see coyote tracks nearly anywhere with impressionable terrain, such as soft mud or snow.

Generally, coyote tracks in your backyard are not a significant cause for concern. They are more likely to run from humans than attack

Still, it’s best to discourage coyotes from becoming too familiar with your property. Not attracting them in the first place is the key to a peaceful coexistence with these remarkable canids. Ensure you do not leave food or water out (even pet food!), and always secure your trash bins. 

Identifying animal tracks is a challenging but fulfilling hobby. While it can be difficult to learn initially, studying your surroundings and understanding the clues of who is nearby is a fascinating endeavor.

Authors

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  • Bernice Go
    (Author)

    Bernice Go is a violinist and orchestra manager by profession but a writer by hobby. She enjoys writing about various topics, from music to animals to self-development. When she isn’t playing the violin or writing, she loves reading, traveling, playing video games, and savoring a good cup of coffee.

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  • Jonathan Way
    (Expert)

    Jon is Floofmania's coyote and coywolf expert. He lends a hand in fact-checking, proofreading and editing our content about coyotes. Jonathan (Jon) Way has a B.S. (UMass Amherst), M.S. (UConn Storrs), and doctorate (Boston College) related to the study of eastern coyotes, also known as coywolves. He is also the author of several books and peer-reviewed studies of which you can read more on his website.

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