Coyotes are one of the most numerous wild animals in the United States, with populations estimated at somewhere between 250,000 and 750,000.
This means that at any given time, most states have tens of thousands of coyotes. And, with coyotes now inhabiting every state but Hawaii, almost anyone can see these canines from time to time.
In addition, coyotes are famous for their adaptability. These dog-like animals range significantly in size, with average weights between 15 and 75 pounds.
Most are around 30 pounds and about 3-4 feet long including the tail – but some have been caught at almost 5 feet while the smallest ones are under 3 feet.
That adaptability, plus a diverse diet, means coyotes can live almost anywhere. That’s allowed them to live in urban areas off of trash and pests like rats, in mountains, in deserts, and even in near-arctic conditions.
Yet, coyotes are just one of a large number (36 species) of canines, and they are remarkably similar to almost all of them.
1. Domestic Dogs
Scientific Name: Canis familiaris (species)
Description: The domestic dog is so similar to coyotes that some breeds are difficult to distinguish from them, although domestication significantly changes temperament.
The domestic dog is the closest living relative to the wolf, making it one of the closest to the coyote. It’s also the species everyone is most familiar with, as dogs were the first domesticated animal and are still one of the most popular pets.
Dogs vary significantly in size, shape, and color, with breeds ranging from about 7 inches in height (Yorkshire Terrier) to well over 43 inches (Central Asian Shepherd Dog).
Still, some look almost exactly like coyotes. For example, the Saarloos Wolfdog and Tamaskan dogs look like a larger version of a coyote.
You wouldn’t mistake most domestic dogs for coyotes, or vice versa.
Coyotes tend to be smaller, warier of humans, and behave differently than any dog raised around people. At the same time, they share most behavior traits including hunting in packs, food, and social behavior with dogs.
2. True Foxes
Scientific Name (genus): Vulpes (genus)
Description: True foxes are small, pointy-snouted canines that can resemble small coyotes or can look nothing alike.
True foxes are one of the most widely distributed genera of any animal.
In fact, they inhabit almost every type of climate, from the desert to the arctic circle. However, they’re remarkably similar to coyotes in many ways and remarkably different in others.
For example, most foxes are relatively solitary. While they do burrow and build dens like coyotes, they don’t form packs.
On the other hand, they do mate and stay together with that mate until kits are about 7-8 months old – or nearly adult.
In addition, some fox species, like the kit fox, the swift fox, and the cape fox actually closely resemble coyotes. Many are also native to the Americas, where coyotes are found. That can be confusing.
However, if the animal is under about 3 feet in length, it’s probably a fox and not a coyote.
All true foxes except for the arctic fox have large ears, ideal for venting heat while they run. The arctic fox has smaller, more rounded ears covered with more fur, preventing frostbite in its chosen dwelling places.
3. Gray Foxes
Scientific Name (genus): Urocyon
Description: The gray fox is the closest living relative to all other canines on earth – and therefore the most direct descendant of their common ancestor.
Gray foxes are not “true” foxes but are more closely related to coyotes, wolves, and dogs.
Both living species also look more like small coyotes, although gray foxes have bushier tails and more varied coats than coyotes. Both are also native to the United States and not found elsewhere.
Here, the common Gray Fox is found from Southern Canada and the United States down to northern South America – although they don’t live in mountainous regions.
The less common Grey Island Fox is a gray fox with a reddish underbelly, endemic to the Channel Islands off of California.
They also stand out for having little fear of humans, with many islanders easily taming foxes. In addition, there are 6 subspecies, each endemic to its own island.
If you see the common gray fox, you might assume it’s a coyote. However, with some being as small as 2 feet in length including the tail, they’re usually smaller.
4. Bush Dogs
Scientific Name: Speothos venaticus
Description: The bush dog looks more like a small bear than a coyote, but shares most traits with other canines, including hunting, living in packs, and social behavior.
Bush dogs are native to Central and South America. They’re also so rare that they were believed to be extinct for several decades after their discovery and we still don’t know much about the species.
However, they are the closest living relative to the maned wolf. They’re also one of the only dogs unable to breed with other dogs – meaning they’re more genetically distant than other canines.
That’s visible when you look at them. Bush dogs have shorter legs, larger and rounder heads and muzzles, and thicker fur.
At first glance, you might assume you’re looking at a bear. But, bush dogs are very much canines – although they have webbed feet for swimming.
They also live in packs, where they normally hunt large rodents like agouti and capybara. In most cases, they’re also only found at higher elevations – although that may relate to temperature and staying out of arid regions.
5. Bat-Eared Foxes
Scientific Name: Otocyon megalotis
Description: The bat-eared fox is very closely related to all other dogs but you’d never mistake it for a coyote.
Bat-eared dogs are one of the closest relatives to the common ancestors of all canines. However, with extremely large “bat-like” ears, this savanna dog/fox is unlikely to be mistaken for a coyote.
In fact, the “bat-eared fox” or “motlosi” have ears that average 4.5 inches long – compared to a shoulder height of about 14 inches.
So, from the front, a bat-eared fox’s ears make up about a quarter of its total height!
Bat-eared foxes are also unlike true foxes in many other ways. For example, they live in packs like coyotes and most other canines.
In addition, they hunt in pairs, and eat a diverse range of foods including termites.
In fact, harvester termites make up about 80% of its diet while other small insects and arachnids form most of the rest. These foxes are also known to forage on berries and seeds.
That makes these carnivores a lot more omnivorous than many other canines. However, they will occasionally hunt and feed on small mammals.
6. South American Foxes
Scientific Name (genus): Lycalopex
Description: These coyote-like dogs look like a cross between a fox and a coyote or wolf – although most have larger ears than coyotes.
South American Foxes or “False Foxes” include 6 species of fox native to South America. All species are small and coyote-like, with significant resemblance to a small coyote.
In fact, the Pampas Fox is almost impossible to tell from some coyotes. However, with a maximum weight of about 18 pounds, they’re significantly smaller than their cousins.
False foxes are also more closely related to wolves, jackals, and coyotes than to true foxes. However, they do otherwise share a lot of social traits with foxes.
For example, they are primarily solitary and nocturnal. On the other hand, they don’t burrow. Instead, they look for available hollows, caves, or burrows made by other animals and sleep there.
Therefore, South American Foxes are a good mix of the coyote and the true fox in appearance and behavior.
7. Raccoon Dogs
Scientific Name (genus): Nyctereutes
Description: The raccoon dog looks exactly like a cross between a dog and a raccoon – sharing shaggy fur and raccoon markings, but is closely related to the coyote.
Raccoon Dogs are one of the oldest known canine species and two still exist in Japan, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Vietnam. These small dogs are usually about 2 feet in length with another 6-8 inches of tail.
In addition, they normally weigh about 15 lbs, making them extremely lightweight for their size.
However, they also have long fur, sometimes as much as 5 inches in length. While the coat resembles that of a raccoon, it’s much more coarse, allowing the dogs to lose heat in the often warm temperatures of South Asia and Japan.
That’s so much the case that fur farmers in the 1920s introduced the dogs to eastern Russia in the hopes of them adapting to colder climates with softer fur.
Instead, they’ve become an invasive species in much of Western Europe, including France, German, and the UK.
Otherwise, these dogs are very similar to foxes. For example, they are omnivorous and forage for food rather than hunting.
This means diets range from fish and toads to nuts and berries, with diets changing heavily depending on the season.
Like dogs, they normally live in family groups and forage as a group.
8. African Wild Dog
Scientific Name: Lycaon pictus
Description: The African Wild Dog or painted dog is similar in build to a coyote with large ears, but its mottled appearance and orange spots immediately stand out as different.
African wild dogs or painted dogs are native to sub-Saharan Africa where they primarily hunt antelopes. They’re closely related to dogs, but especially to jackals and dholes.
In addition, with fewer than 7,000 adults left in the wild, they’re endangered.
However, these wild dogs do closely resemble coyotes in appearance. Most have a similar build, weight, and height – however, African wild dogs are more uniform among individual dogs.
All of them are black with white and russet or red patches and large ears, similar to those of a fox.
African wild dogs are also one of the most carnivorous of the canine family, with a diet consisting of more than 70% meat, because narrower canines make them unable to keep many small foods such as termites in their mouths.
Painted dogs are often mistaken for hyenas. However, despite similar coloring, they are true canines.
Scientific Name: Cuon aplinus
Description: The dhole looks like a red or russet coyote or a very large fox, with most descriptions comparing it to a cross between a wolf and a red fox.
Dholes are native to Asia, where they are now an endangered species, with less than 2,500 left in the wild. These dogs normally weigh about 30-40 pounds, or roughly the same as the average coyote.
In addition, they have a similar build with a slender snout and slim legs compared to wolves.
However, the dhole stands out with a long and luxurious coat, similar to that of the fox. In most subspecies, the dhole is also russet or red, like the red fox. However, some subspecies of Dhole are yellow or have black markings.
Like most wolves and coyotes, dholes are extremely social and live, hunt, forage, and raise pups in large “clans” that then subdivide into smaller packs for hunting.
They’re also fairly unique among dogs in that they aren’t very territorial and dogs from one clan frequently join another, they do not mark territory, and significantly cooperate with hunting.
10. Maned Wolf
Scientific Name: Chrysocyon brachyurus
Description: The maned wolf looks a lot like a hyena but is more closely related to the South American bus dog.
The maned wolf is a South American native dog spread across central South America. This dog, which is locally called a fox, is normally about 3 feet long and tall, with another foot or more of its tail.
Unlike other canines, the maned wolf has a ruff, adding height to the shoulders – much like that of a hyena.
Most maned wolves are also russet in color, sharply differentiating them from true wolves. Pups are born completely black and turn red as they mature.
In addition, while they’ve been recorded eating over 300 different types of food, the wolf apple makes up the largest part of their diet. However, they also eat small mammals and birds, but rarely hunt animals larger than a mouse.
Maned wolves also have a symbiotic relationship with the wolf apple, which they often consume whole. Here, maned wolves are the primary means of distributing seeds for the plant.
11. Crab-Eating Fox
Scientific Name: Cerdocyon thous
Description: The crab-eating fox is a small, gray canine that can be easily mistaken for a juvenile coyote.
Crab-eating foxes are not true foxes. Instead, they’re more closely related to the short-eared dog. In appearance, they look much like coyotes or small wolf dogs.
However, most crab-eating foxes have a thicker and more luxuriant coat – which makes them easily distinguishable in good light.
In addition, crab-eating foxes don’t normally exceed about 2 feet. However, with a tail just shy of a foot, they have a significantly long tail compared to body size.
And, at an average of 10-17 pounds, crab-eating foxes are often half the size or less than the coyote.
Otherwise, crab-eating foxes are diverse, adapt to many environments, and live in most types of environments found in South America.
Scientific Name (clade): Canina
Description: Jackals are a diverse group consisting of canis and lupulella genera, but all of which are similar to coyotes.
Jackals are medium-sized canines often confused for coyotes and so similar in appearance that they used to be classified together.
The Golden Jackal is the largest jackal but is actually more similar to a coyote. It’s also the only jackal not classified under the genus Lupulella.
Other jackals, like the Black-backed jackal and the side-striped jackal, are significantly different. These animals are more russet, normally smaller, and have longer hair along the back.
Jackals are also one of the oldest canines with little change between them now and the oldest fossils, dating from the Pleistocene.
Jackals are also unique in that pups stay with the pack after maturing, normally to help raise the next generation. Many are also extremely omnivorous, aggressively hunting large prey, foraging, and eating plants.
Like coyotes, they adapt well to living in urban areas, as human trash often contains significant amounts of food.
However, they are considered a threat to domestic livestock in their native regions of Southern and Central Africa, where they are often hunted to reduce numbers.
Scientific Name (genus): Canis
Description: Coyotes look so much like wolves that the two are commonly mistaken for each other – although wolves are normally larger.
Wolves include several species of canines with similar appearance, social habits, and hunting habits to the coyote.
Here, the most common is the gray wolf, Canis lupus, which is also the largest. In fact, the gray wolf can weigh over 175 pounds. That makes gray wolves the largest carnivorous mammal in the Americas.
However, gray wolves also have a range that covers most of the northern hemisphere. Other types of wolves are less widespread in their population.
For example, the Ethiopian wolf is endemic to small parts of the Ethiopian highlands. The African wolf is native to all of North and Northeastern Africa.
While most are familiar with the gray wolf, russet or red wolves are also common.
14. Short-Eared Dog
Scientific Name: Atelocynus microtis
Description: The short-eared dog looks nothing like a coyote, but shares an omnivorous diet and many social features.
Short-eared dogs are one of the most unique canines. Here, short-eared dogs resemble a cross between a dog and a raccoon, but with short hair.
Their long bodies are relatively stocky and supported by short legs. They also have a medium-sized tail, which extends almost to the ground.
Like some other canines, short-eared dogs also have webbed feet for swimming. That aids them in their native environment of the Amazonian Basin.
In addition, with fish making up a significant portion of their diet, water is an important part of their environment.
Short-eared dogs are also unique in that females are larger than males, with some as much as 30% larger than males. Still, most don’t exceed about 20-22 pounds, making them fairly small for most canines.
Coyotes are the second most populous canine, second only to the domesticated dog. In addition, they’ve spread as far as they have thanks to adaptability rather than reliance on humans. At the same time, they’re remarkably similar to many other canines and can be difficult to tell apart from wolves and even some animals we know as foxes.