Did you know that wolves are technically members of the dog family? Though wild wolves have been, and continue to be studied by experts, much about these dog-like animals is relatively unknown to humans. In the wild, wolves are nomadic, traveling miles in pursuit of food. Wolves are social animals, living and hunting in packs with a strict hierarchy. Despite the relation—and similarity in appearance—to (some) domestic dogs, wild wolves should never be domesticated.
The wolves began as an animal that once had the largest distribution of any land mammal outside of humans and lions—roaming from Alaska and Arctic Canada south towards central Mexico, and through Europe and Asia—living in every type of habitat except the driest deserts and most tropical forests.
In North America, specifically, the wolves’ luck began to change shortly after European settlers arrived. Fear of the wolf, and its predation on domestic animals, led it nearly to extinction in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Despite the U.S. federal government’s plan to systematically poison the country’s wolf population, the Endangered Species Act now protects wolves.
This protection—and their quick reproductive cycles—has helped the wolf population rebound. In fact, a large-scale conservation effort to reintroduce wolves to Yellowstone National Park has been underway since 1995 and has been highly successful at restoring the population there.
There are many different species of wolves, leading to a diversity in size. Some wolves, like the gray or timber wolf, can be more than six feet long and weigh as much as 175 pounds! Wolves are very similar in appearance to some domestic dog breeds, although wolves will differ in general appearance depending on their species.
Different species of wolves will have different coat types and coloring. The most common type of wolf—the gray or timber wolf—usually has thick gray fur, but all black and all white varieties also exist.
One of the most common types of wolf, the gray or timber wolf can grow much larger than their dog counterparts. Other than their size, the iconic wolf howl is another feature that sets this animal apart from the dog.
Wolves are nomadic pack animals that tend to travel in groups of six to ten wolves, working together in a hierarchy.
They are steadfast hunters, traveling up to 12 miles in one day, and while they rarely attack humans, humans and wolves continue to have a cantankerous relationship likely due in part to the wolves’ instinct to prey on domestic animals.
Their behaviors are very similar to that of dogs—they enjoy playing amongst each other and chewing—but they are territorial and they will growl when they feel encroached upon.
Wolves are carnivores, and they have quite an appetite. In fact, the larger of these animals (such as a gray or timber wolf weighing in at 175 pounds) eat up to 20 pounds of food in one meal.
Smaller wolves—like red wolves—eat tinier prey like rodents and rabbits.
Wolves in the wild are surprisingly tidy animals that spend a lot of time keeping themselves clean. They will give themselves baths in nearby water sources, and pack members will even help groom each other through a series of behaviors like licking each other's coats and removing debris with their teeth.
Wolves are skilled hunters and nomadic animals, traveling up to 12 miles a day in pursuit of food. They enjoy stimulating activities similar to a domestic dog, as well, like playing within their packs.
Wolves are wild animals that should not be brought home for domestication. Although they tend to avoid humans, there have been reports of wolves attacking humans.
Reviewed July 26, 2020 by Cindy Elston, DVM, MPH