Happiness in a Cage?


If you are absolutely convinced that you MUST have a wolf or wolf-dog cross as a pet, please take the time and energy to care for it properly.  In the vast majority of cases, people who have tried to raise their wolf or wolf-dog as a dog have utterly failed.  You need to take the animal’s wild nature into serious consideration when planning for their care.  If you already own a wolf or wolf-dog, and are searching for some answers to your problems, please know that there are solutions out there, as long as you are willing to change your life.

Over the years, many, many people have found themselves in possession of a wolf or wolf-dog and had to come up with good ways to deal with them.  They are, after all, wild animals.  Here is the beginnings of a list of advice that Mission:Wolf (a sanctuary for cast-off captive wolves and wolf-dogs) has compiled through their own experiences and those of others.  Please, take these ideas into consideration if you are trying to care for a wolf or wolf-dog in captivity.  Then, please, please, please, visit as many wolf facilities as you possibly can.  Each facility has its own way of handling the unique challenges wolves present... and hopefully, you will find bits and pieces that work for you. 

Suggested Requirements for the Safe and Humane Care
of Captive Wolves and Wolf-Dogs


Even captive wolves and wolf-dogs need lots of wilderness and space.  Due to their propensity for howling, nearby neighbors is not a good idea.  The more land you can acquire, the better.  High noise or traffic areas create extreme stress for any wolf-dog because of its naturally shy nature.  The successful owner will secure land away from people, busy roads and potential development.  If the wolf-dog owner does not personally own the property, a certificate ought to be signed and notarized by the land owner authorizing and giving the wolf-dog owner permission to erect permanent fenced enclosures that contain the animals on the property.


Enclosures of comfortable size for the animals and of sufficient strength to prevent escape must exist.  The enclosures must be able to contain both pups and adults...  requiring very different things.  The following are minimum requirements that ought be strictly followed.  Some animals will require you to go above and beyond these suggestions.


A single wild wolf’s territory is about 10,000 acres.  According to a study done at Mission:Wolf in 1999, captive wolves and wolf-dogs require at least 1 acre of enclosure space (200’ x 200’).  When housing multiple animals together, a bare minimum of ˝ an acre is needed per animal to minimize aggression toward each other (i.e. 3 animals = 1 ˝ acres, 4 animals = 2 acres).


Chain link fencing should adjoin the ground and extend upwards a minimum of six feet with a two foot extension of lighter weight fence angled in at the top. Overall fence height must be a minimum of eight feet (8'). It is suggested that an electric wire be strung at the top of the fence on the inside of the enclosure to stop jumpers and climbers.


All primary fence and gates should be of - 9 gauge, 2" square, 6' tall chain link (8' chain link fence is preferred).


Concrete with reinforced mesh should extend two feet vertically into the ground and be attached to the base of the chain link to prevent animals from digging out.  In place of concrete, a ground mesh four feet wide may be attached at the base of the chain link lying flat on the ground and extend into the enclosure. Logs, rocks, and soil (2"-6" deep) should be placed on top of the mesh to act as weight and prevent injury to the feet of animals.


All entrances and exits must have double gates (to prevent escape when an animal bully’s its way through one gate) and be at least 6'-6" tall. Latches must be secure and lockable.  Be sure that fencing is attached to the inside of the gate so that the framework cannot be used as a ladder.


A secondary fence, at least five feet tall and five feet away from the primary fence, must surround the enclosure. This is to prevent people and animals from physically contacting the primary enclosure.  Also, in the case of an escape, the secondary fence can temporarily contain the animal while it is returned to its enclosure.


The enclosure must provide adequate drainage to allow animals to find dry ground in wet conditions.


All enclosures are required by law to contain a shelter.  Whether a manufactured dog house or something home built, the shelter needs to safely provide the animal(s) with space to get away from rain, snow, and direct sun.  Wolves and wolf-dogs chew on everything… keep this in mind.  They also like to perch above everything and look down on the world (kind of like cats), so make the shelter sturdy and safe enough for them to climb or jump on top.


Enclosures should contain enough vegetation and ground cover to provide the animal with shade, hiding places and grass to eat.  However, make sure that no trees or bushes are to close to the fence.  A tree can easily fall on the fence or a wolf can climb up it to escape (yes, wolves and wolf-dogs are capable of climbing trees when given enough time!).


Wolves and wolf-dogs are very social animals.  It is best to give them canine companionship of some kind.  If you already own one wolf or wolf-dog, consider adopting a strong and sturdy mature domestic dog from the local pound (German shepherd, malamute, husky, rottweiler, ect).  Introductions can be difficult… wolf-dogs and wolves are also very territorial and slow to trust new members in their pack.  When trying to place new animals together, it is safest to divide the enclosure in half with a single layer of 6’-8’ tall chain link with a gate in it.  Put the animals on opposite sides of the fence until they become accustomed to each other.  Be prepared for fence-fighting to begin with.

At the same time, do not get carried away in providing your wolf or wolf-dog with a large pack.  While wild wolves live in packs of 2-30 animals, captivity puts limits on the size of a viable pack.  According to a study done on captive wolves and wolf-dogs, it is possible to minimize the aggression between animals when there are 4 or fewer living in one enclosure.

Captivity creates abnormal behavior in wolves and wolf-dogs.  The fence that surrounds their enclosure and protects your wolf-dog is also the fence that can cause serious problems.  Wild wolves use posturing and ritualized dominance to gain and maintain their ranking in the pack hierarchy.  When a wild wolf is kicked out of the pack, for whatever reason, it can leave the area and start a new pack.  In captivity, the fence keeps them in.  Without close monitoring, captive animals can seriously injure each other when they cannot get away.  Always keep in mind that you may have to separate animals that have lived together for days or years.  Be aware that you may need to build another enclosure to house the animal(s) that have been kicked out.


Captive wolves and wolf-dogs are usually designed to digest diets like those of wild wolves.  Wild wolves survive on sporadic meals of deer, elk, moose, bison, and other natural prey.  Even captive wolves and wolf-dogs are capable of, and benefit from, digesting pounds of raw meat.  Their bodies do not need all of the carbohydrates and preservatives that are found in normal dog food.  Raw, whole bones serve as a source of calcium and other vitamins, as well as strengthening teeth and jaws.  Don’t worry about feeding your wolf-dog uncooked bones… it is only when bones are cooked that they become brittle and splinter.  It can be difficult to find elk and bison to feed your wolf-dog, so you can rely on raw chicken, turkey, beef, ect.  Don’t forget that your wolf-dog also needs access to fresh grass and vegetation to help with digestion.

Most captive wolf and wolf-dog refuges have found that nutritional supplements help the animals stay healthy.  In particular, glucosamine (for arthritis and stiffness), vitamin C (for infection and the immune system), fish oil (for skin and coat problems), vitamin A, B, D and E (for various conditions), alfalfa and wheatgrass (for internal parasites), pumpkin (for digestion), and garlic (for internal and external parasites, as well as the immune system) are very helpful when needed.  Any supplement can be given as needed in a small ball of ground meat.

Another thing most people do not immediately realize… wolves and wolf-dogs will eat, and often enjoy fruit.  Many captive wolves and wolf-dogs have been known to go crazy for watermelon.  I’ve even met a wolf that liked pineapple.

A word of caution - do not change your animal’s diet suddenly.  If your wolf-dog has spent its life eating dog food, it would be a shock to the system to change completely over to a raw meat diet.  Every animal has different nutritional needs.  Some wolf-dogs require a diet of pure, uncooked protein, while others need some dog food, rice or oats to digest everything properly.  I have even known an elderly captive wolf that needed cat food, goat’s milk yogurt, beef broth and salmon.  Talk to your vet, don’t be too afraid to try something, keep your eye out for holistic and organic alternatives, and pay attention to what it is your wolf-dog really needs.


All animals must be provided with a constant source of clean water.  A horse or cattle water trough secured to the fence is suggested.  Wolves and wolf-dogs are quite capable of tipping over, shredding or burying metal tubs.  Most wolves and wolf-dogs greatly enjoy swimming and wading in ponds, pools, streams or large tanks.  During hot weather, it is necessary to provide the animal(s) with water deep enough to lie down in, as they cannot sweat and have very thick coats.


The most important thing to remember about interacting with captive wolves and wolf-dogs is: they are still wild animals!  Everything that happens is on their terms.  That means, it should always be their choice on whether to interact with someone or not.  You cannot force a wolf or wolf-dog to like you or to obey you.


These animals are very mouthy.  Wolves and wolf-dogs use their mouths for everything… to eat, to communicate, to bite, to play, to hold… much like we use our hands.  First, remember that you NEVER take anything out of their mouth.  Once they grab it (you camera, the pot roast, your shoe, whatever), it is their property and will be defended.  Second, realize that wolves and wolf-dogs expect you to communicate in same way they do.  When greeting you, most will stick their nose on yours, need to look into your eyes, and lick and clank your teeth.  If they are not allowed to do this, some will nibble on your lip, while others will grad onto your face.  Wolves and wolf-dogs are shy and skittish around strangers.  They are very outgoing and boisterous around pack members (including their human family).  These both provide their own set of problems and requirements. 


To a wolf, a stranger is wholly unpredictable and a constant threat.  A wolf or wolf-dog that is pushed into or cornered in contact with a stranger is, after ample warning growls and teeth showing, liable to fear bite in self defense.  It is best to expose a wolf-dog pup to as many people and experiences as possible while very young, in order to socialize it and desensitize it to most strangers.  When a wolf of wolf-dog seems particularly upset or tense around a person, do not force the encounter… the animal probably has a good reason.  Use the wolf or wolf-dog as an ambassador for its species, showing people that they are gentle creatures when given the chance, but that they do NOT belong in most people’s houses.  At the same time, pay extremely close attention to everything that happens during an interaction with your wolf-dog to prevent anything bad from happening.


Conversely, captive wolves and wolf-dogs see their human family as part of their pack.  They need lots of attention and companionship from you.  If they were raised in the house as a puppy, with constant contact and reassurance from you, it can be very difficult for everyone involved when they grow up.  When the wolf or wolf-dog becomes so large and strong that is moved into an outside enclosure and people cannot always go inside the fence, the animal misses the contact as much as the people.  They can end up taking out their frustration by beating-up other pack mates, or trying to grab people through the fence.  Be very aware of this problem from the beginning.  If you start off by getting your pup used to living in an enclosure with other canines from the day you bring it home, you may not have this problem.  If it is too late for this, keep people away from the fence at all times, and away from the enclosure except when you can enter and interact with the animal. 


And what happens when you do enter the enclosure and the animal is so excited to see you that it knocks you over and gives you a bloody nose?  Or the wolf-dog sees its opportunity to challenge you for leadership?  Or acts very scared?  These are complicated questions that are hard to answer.  The real answer depends on the animal and people involved, their histories and relationships, and the exact situation.  There are very different schools of thought on what to do.  Here are a couple of suggestions for potential solutions:  (1) Do not get involved, or rather, turn everything into play… when entering the enclosure, get down on the animal’s level and be prepared to catch it when it comes flying at you to say hello; when you are challenged or end up scaring the animal, start playing with it, acting goofy to throw it off balance, forget about its original intent, and accept you as its leader again.  (2)  The dog whisperer approach… when you first enter the enclosure, completely ignore the animal.  The theory is that disregard is dominance… watch an adult wolf react to pups sometime and you will see they ignore the pesky pups until they are ready to deal with it; so, by ignoring your wolf or wolf-dog, you are showing ultimate superiority.  Becoming a dog whisperer is much more complex than simply ignoring your wolf-dog, but it centers on getting in tune with the animal’s natural communication and using it to your advantage (see Jan Fennell or Cesar Milan for books, DVDs and more details).  And remember, your wolf or wolf-dog is NOT a dog, so the methods may not always work the way you expect them to, but it is a good starting place.

The best suggestion for figuring out how to interact with a captive wolf or wolf-dog is to talk to as many experienced people as possible.  Everyone has their own ideas.  Take what other people suggest and make it your own… figure out what works for you and your wolf-dog.  Always keep in mind, however, that fear, intimidation and cruelty will do nothing for you.  They will only hurt your animal and make it dangerous for anyone to be around.  Wolves and wolf-dogs have long, long memories, and all it takes is one bad experience to change how they see the world.