Throughout a lot of our media, you’ll find that cats and dogs are regularly represented pitted against each other as enemies or bitter rivals. From old cartoons and childrens’ movies to the extended rivalry between “dog people” and “cat people,” it always seems like dogs and cats are naturally at odds.
But how much of this is factual?
Are Dogs Predators of Cats?
While domestic dogs are definitely capable of harming cats, it would be disingenuous to call dogs a “natural predator” to cats. Dogs and cats have co-existed as domesticated animals for a long, long time, and for most of that time dogs have not been true “predators,” as their needs have largely been provided by humans.
When dogs do attack cats, it is rarely for their needs to eat, but more to serve the psychological instinct called “prey drive.” Prey drive is the natural drive to chase (and often kill) prey-like animals.
Many dogs have prey drive, and no two dogs’ drive is exactly the same. I have met dogs who don’t care in the slightest about small animals, while others have an insatiable desire to attack anything even vaguely prey-like. Dogs with different drives also sit at every point between those two extremes.
While prey drive does often include cats as small animals in many cases, dogs are not considered a natural predator of cats. Even their predecessors — a now-extinct version of the wolf and the African wildcat, respectively — did not typically interact, much less did they have a hunter-prey relationship.
The closest-related wild versions of both dogs and cats each fill their own niche within an ecosystem. The dogs’ counterparts typically are found working in groups to prey on larger animals like sheep, deer, and others, depending on the area in which they live. The cat’s wild counterpart usually hunts smaller animals such as birds, reptiles, and small rodents.
However, placing a high-drive dog in a home with a cat can still often end in disaster, even if dogs are not natural predators of cats. It is very common for dogs to clock cats as “prey” as it applies to the dog’s drive. Therefore, a dog’s natural instinct to chase and potentially kill small animals can still potentially put a household cat in extreme danger.
Do Dogs Have a Natural Instinct to Kill Cats?
Many dogs to have a natural instinct to attack cats, but this behavior is usually not limited to cats alone. Dogs with high prey drive will usually engage with other small animals such as squirrels, rabbits, rodents, and more, simply because their instinct tells them to. Unfortunately, for many dogs this instinct will absolutely activate for cats as much as any other prey-sized animal.
The reason dogs and cats may seem naturally enemies or at-odds is largely because they are the most common free-roaming pets for much of the world. Often kept in households together and both allowed free reign over the living space, it just makes sense that there would be more instances of dogs attacking cats than there would be of dogs attacking other animals.
Do All Dogs Have a Killer Instinct?
Not all dogs have this intense instinct, and not all dogs with this strong instinct have it manifest specifically the same way. Some dogs are particular and only care about chasing squirrels. Some dogs don’t care about small animals in the slightest, and some will even become friends with their feline roommates.
I have three personal dogs who do not care about the cats in my home — that’s why they are my personal dogs, living in my home with me. While I absolutely plan on one day having a higher-drive dog to work with that could potentially be a hazard to the cats, I only have an interest in doing so when I have a distinct on-site kennel building or even separate facility. This is the compromise I made with myself when I decided I wanted the cats, in the first place.
When it comes to prey drive, breed often does matter, as does the line and individual dog; these instincts are largely genetic. High prey drive can occur in most breeds, but are most common in herding dogs such as the Belgian Shepherd, Australian Cattle Dog, and German Shepherd, as well as terriers such as the American Pit Bull Terrier, Airedale, and even the tiny Yorkshire Terrier.
Of course, as a disclaimer, there will be outliers within every breed, and there is no guarantee that a dog of the herding or terrier group will have a high prey drive; but it is definitely more common in these breeds than others, as their genetics are designed for specific purposes.
Can You Train a Dog to Not Attack Cats?
In a lot of cases, dogs can be trained to ignore cats and other small animals, at least to some extent. This is a correction-based process (often on the ecollar) called “crittering,” and is designed to make the chase seem undesirable to the dog. This does not remove prey drive from a dog’s core “programming,” but it does prevent a dog from initiating with inappropriate prey based on a conditioned outcome.
You can read more about the ecollar, how it is used safely and humanely, and how it differs from generic shock collars in the following articles:
Most pet dogs will respond to this type of training to some degree, and many even turn around to completely give up on being aggressive towards cats. My personal dog, Grimm, is one of those cases, and you can read about how he went from hyper-aggressive to the sweet boy he is today in my article, The Dog That Turned Me Into A Trainer.
But if you not dealing with a typical pet dog, and are fighting a very intense genetic instinct, it may seem like an uphill battle. For many dogs, I think asking perfection may be reaching into areas where we are fighting against what the dog is specifically bred for. Asking a dog to both be a high-drive “cool” dog and coexist with cats peacefully as a pet is often not realistic and in some cases may even be unkind.
For example, I had a foster from a local client who was a very high-drive Dutch Shepherd. This dog had a prey drive like you wouldn’t believe, and honestly must have been at least part working line given the set of un-petlike behaviors she displayed. I did some crittering with her so that she was safer being in my home, but it was clear in the long-run that she would need to go to a home that had a lot of experience and no cats; it only takes one time for a disaster to happen. And for the dog in front of me, I felt that “polishing up” that area of her training would have been unkind and not worth it in the long-run.
In these kinds of situations, I compensate for this with strict management. This dog specifically had a crate in a room where cats could not reach, and she had to put a muzzle and often a leash on before coming out of that room. Her drive was just that high, and I was not willing to take risks with my pets.
Keep in mind, most dogs that chase cats are not this dog. Hopefully, most dog owners are not bringing working-line animals in as pets! Most pet dogs will respond to crittering protocols and become a lot safer around cats; however, it’s still good to stay on top of your management for the safety of your animals, and not leave a previously cat-aggressive dog unsupervised with small animals.