Q: We’re having a neighborhood problem because some of our neighbors think our dog is vicious. We don’t deny that she’s killed several cats. In fact, we’re the ones who reported the incidents to our neighbors, because every time it’s happened has been in our backyard. We think she’s being protective of the yard but our neighbors say there’s no telling what a dog who hurts other animals might do to a person. Our dog has always been super-sweet with humans but some of them want us to put her to sleep!
A: Every week our hospital sees at least a few dogs and cats who have experienced violent exchanges with other pets, typically with members of their own species. Only rarely do we see feline patients who have been injured by dogs.
Not that it happens rarely. In fact, it’s pretty common for dogs to want to hurt cats. It’s just that a) cats are pretty good at staying away from dogs who’d rather they not be around and b) dogs are very efficient at eradicating cats. The wounds they inflict are usually deep, crushing injuries. Which is why they mostly don’t make it to the vet’s.
Because these dogs view cats as prey, this kind of behavior is referred to as predatory aggression. For them, hunting cats is no different than hunting rats, opossums or squirrels. These dogs do not share our human conception of cats as fundamentally different from backyard wildlife.
And why should they? Certain breeds of dogs (shepherds, especially) have been genetically selected for their ability to guard against predators. As carnivores, cats are the very definition of predator for dogs who are wired to think like this.
So what does that mean for your dog?
When an otherwise friendly backyard dog attacks cats who enter their yards, predatory aggression is typically assumed. This type of attack is wholly within the normal context of a predator-prey relationship. Sad as this may be for the cat’s human family, this kind of behavior is considered natural and normal.
Understandably, grief-stricken people may use words like “vicious” and “dangerous” to describe your dog, but it sounds unlikely to be true in this case. “Predatory” sounds way more apropos. Asking your veterinarian or another canine behavior professional to assess your dog’s temperament (and attest to its nature in writing) sounds like an excellent idea in this case.
Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is drpattykhuly.com. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.