Discover the 5 Reasons Otters Attack Humans

Written by Katie Downey
Updated: November 12, 2023
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Otters are adorable, water-loving mammals who aren’t fond of humans, for the most part. They are secretive animals who may become easily upset when people spy on and photograph them. They see humans as a threat when one goes paddling by in a kayak or decides to take a dip in the otter’s territory. Sometimes, the heavily misunderstood otter attacks humans. Let’s try to understand these great swimmers and fishers a bit better and learn from the mistakes of others.

What Is An Otter?

Otters are worldwide, from coastal shores of Alaska to beautiful and diverse rivers inland. They are rarely seen because they avoid humans as much as they can. The endearing creatures have secret lives that researchers still know little about. They can become so upset with harassment from humans that they stop eating, become ill, and are unable to provide for their young. Otters will even postpone pregnancy if humans are around. They truly just want to remain left alone to lead happy lives with their small communities known as a romp. As it sounds, a romp plays and hunts together. Their whimsical romps band together in the form of small family groups or all female or male groups.

Otters come in varying sizes and temperaments. Some prefer to live solitary lives, while others may live in small, close-knit family groups that take care of each other. They can be quite small or very large like the giant river otter of South America.

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1. The Otter Is Too Comfortable With Humans

otter fed by hand with parts of fishes

Humans should not engage wildlife by feeding or coaxing them over.

©valerialina/Shutterstock.com

This isn’t the otter’s fault. Humans should know better, but oftentimes, they don’t or refuse to understand the otter is a wild animal and not a pet. It can be difficult to see an adorable otter and keep a safe and respectful distance, but it is crucial to do so. Wild animals can be unpredictable and are not like pets or humans.

Humans project emotions they imagine an animal having onto the animal, which puts both parties at risk. This is anthropomorphism. It is unhealthy and places the animal in a difficult situation when a human believes it is perfectly safe and good to approach an otter. The otter may act in a way the human does not understand, and someone can be injured. Most of the time, it’s the otter who gets hurt when the human tells authorities it acted violently. The otter’s life is at stake because of the human’s poor choices.

Never feed or pet wildlife. Keep your distance and give the animal plenty of space. It is always important to respect life, including your own. By placing a wild animal in a stressful situation, it will act unpredictably.

2. Otters Can Be Territorial

three otters sitting on a log

Otters aren’t fond of strangers in their territory, even if you are bigger and scarier.

©o0swfh0o/Shutterstock.com

It may be hard to imagine the sweet-looking otter being anything other than adorable and precious, but they have another side. Otters, like most wild animals, are territorial. They mark their territory carefully with excrement, and that is as good as a “keep out” sign. They mean business when they mark their territory, and anyone who doesn’t respect them will be sorry.

Otters mark their territory through scent glands located near their tails. These scent glands leave musty-smelling markings that create a perimeter around their territory. It lets other otters know they are trespassing if they dare to cross it. If they dare to cross it, they will meet a very angry, territorial otter looking for a fight. When otters fight over territory, it is more than a fight for land; it is everything they’re keeping safe on that land.

Otters can be very aggressive if they believe you to be a threat to their territory. When otters fight over territory, they can become seriously hurt or die. The best thing to do if you encounter an otter is to respect it by leaving the area.

3. Otters Think You Will Take Their Food

What Do River Otters Eat?

Otters don’t want you to take their fish and don’t understand that you don’t want it.

©iStock.com/Troy Levengood

If someone broke into your house and began to steal all of your food, wouldn’t you take that as a threat? To an otter, there are only a handful of things that they deem important, and food is one of those things.

Sometimes, otters might live together in an area, and all hunt together. That is when the fish are abundant, and hunting is good. Other times, when the fish are scarce and running out quickly, the same otter might not feel so great about sharing. It would be the same for a person, though many of us do not know what it’s like to run out of food and not be able to get more. That otter can use an imaginary credit card to purchase food and have it delivered. They don’t have any way of knowing if there will be more fish or if there are other bodies of water nearby with plenty of fish for their entire family.

By staying away from an otter, you are respecting its property and lowering your chances of an otter attack happening.

4. You’re a Threat to Their Pups

Like all mothers, otters are protective of their young, and no threat is too big to face.

©Chase Dekker/Shutterstock.com

It is critical to remember that every single living creature on earth will defend their young. It doesn’t matter the type. Otters are no different. They are extremely fierce when protecting their pups, just as any good mother would be. If you think they are fierce when protecting their food or territory, you haven’t seen their most aggressive state until you see a mother protecting her pups.

An otter who believes a human will take or hurt her pups will be the angriest and scariest otter anyone will ever encounter. If she even believes the slightest threat to be on the horizon, she will beat the person there to help them understand why they are making a huge mistake. Otters can be extremely vicious. They are predators with very sharp teeth which they use to tear fish open. Otters who have fought walk away if they’re lucky. Even the ones who do get to walk away are not generally in good physical or mental shape. An otter is capable of inflicting serious wounds on whatever is at the other end.

If a person is attacked by a very angry mother otter defending her pup, the human will likely require stitches or staples, a tetanus shot, and possibly surgery or skin grafts to cover the deep bite marks. If the otter attacks and gets ahold of an artery, the person could die before they can get help. Most of the time, when a person is attacked by an otter, it is in a remote location. If you are in a remote location without a cell signal or other people along with you, you might not make it out alive. Otters are almost always nest on the banks of secluded sections of rivers that kayakers love exploring.

If you are exploring a remote body of water, always take your cell phone and a first aid kit. Be sure to let someone know when you will go, where you are going, and when to expect you home. Otters may seem like silly animals to be afraid of, but it is always a good idea to plan for anything to happen when you are in the wilderness.

5. The Otter is Sick

Otter

There are times when otters are not in control of their actions because of sicknesses.

©Christopher Tan Teck Hean/Shutterstock.com

Sometimes, humans encounter sick or rabid animals. Those animals are no longer in control of their behavior, and it is best to stay far away from them. It can be difficult to know if an animal has rabies, but one clear way to know something is wrong is to be alert to any strange behavior. Rabid animals will act strange. They may walk right up to you without showing any fear, or they may stagger around, appearing to be confused.

One thing is very clear with rabies: it comes with the inability to drink water. A rabid animal is not going to want anything to do with water if it can help it. Sometimes, the safest way to get rid of a rabid animal is to get in the water and escape. Chances are that they will not follow you.

It is rare to see a rabid otter, though it does happen. Earlier in 2023, a woman was attacked by a rabid otter. It’s best to always have a plan of action if things go sour while you are out enjoying nature. It’s good to carry bear spray or something similar and have a first aid kit and a cell phone in case of emergencies. It has been repeated in this article because it is incredibly important to be safe any time you will be around wildlife. Always keep a safe and respectful distance between you and any animal. Chances are they are in the middle of nowhere and away from humans because they want to be left alone.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Colin Seddon/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Katie Downey is a writer for A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on wildlife, arachnids and insects. Katie has been writing and researching animals for more than a decade. Katie worked in animal rescue and rehabilitation with handicapped cats and farm animals for many years. As a resident of North Carolina, Katie enjoys exploring nature with her son, educating others on the positive role that insects and spiders play in the ecosystem and raising jumping spiders.

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