Why Did My Dog Kill My Cat?
Best friends or deadly enemies?
Why Did My Dog Kill My Cat or My Neighbor's Cat?
Let's face it: it's sometimes quite inevitable for a dog owner to perceive their dog quite differently after the dog ends up killing their cat or the neighbor's cat. Many thoughts may go in the dog owner's mind such as "why did my dog do this? what happened exactly? is this a sign my dog is aggressive? does this mean my dog may decide to now also kill other dogs, animals and are my children at risk now? Often dog owners are shocked that their dog managed to kill an animal especially when such animal was a cherished pet. Sometimes dog owners are so distraught by the whole experience, they feel like they own a monster and even consider giving up their dog or in some severe cases even putting him down.
Before taking drastic measures and considering the dog evil, it's important to better understand the behavior and get a better grasp on what likely happened. There may be many different causes for this behavior. If you were able to witness the behavior, you may get some clues by considering what happened before. Did your dog chase the cat? Did the cat come too close to a resource? Did the cat come in your dog's property? Were the cat and dog playing? We will take a closer look at some potential causes and tips on how to deal with the situation to prevent this from happening again. Understanding what may have happened requires distancing yourself from the horrific event and seeing beyond the emotions.
Dogs Who Chase and Kill Fleeing Cats
If your dog started chasing after a fleeing cat and ended up fatally wounding the cat, consider that it may be difficult to grasp, but this may be totally normal behavior. One may say: "how can it be normal behavior? I never thought my dog would do something so horrible!" I actually felt the same way when my friend told me that a kitten I gave her was killed by a neighbor's pack of Cirneco dell' Etna hunting dogs. Every time I saw those dogs I thought of them as evil beings with fangs ready to kill any cat that walked by. Today, I see things differently. The problem is that as humans, we often tend to attribute human traits to dogs something known as "anthropomorphism." Unlike us, dogs do not have moral values and act out of instinct, which is simply part of being a dog, just as killing mice may be part of being a cat.
Chasing a fleeing cat (or a squirrel, rabbit or mouse) is as normal as it was for our ancestors to go hunting and for our food industry to keep stocking up the meat departments in our grocery stores to allow us to eat steak and ribs. The instinct to chase and kill fleeing animals stems from the dog's past. To fully understand predatory behavior in dogs all we need to do is to go back in ancient times when the dog's ancestors didn't depend on humans for food as dogs do today. Let's take a brief look at how predatory behavior works.
Before dogs were domesticated and fed kibble from a shiny bowl, dog's ancestors were hunters at heart. What is predatory behavior? It's an animal's ability to track down, chase and kill animals for food. All dogs have a certain level of predatory drive. The fact your dog is eager to chase a ball or shake a toy is because of this drive. Hunting and killing was a way of life in a dog's evolutionary past.
Predatory drive follows a precise sequence that scientists call a "fixed action pattern." The sequence is eye, stalk, chase, grab-bite, kill-bite, dissect and consume. Not all dogs will follow the whole sequence though. This varies based on genetics, history, motivation and other factors. If your dog saw a fleeing cat, predatory drive could have triggered him to chase. What triggers a dog's predatory drive is movement. Movement triggers an automatic, reflexive response in dogs. When the dog spots prey at a distance, the dog may fixate on the source with his gaze, ears kept upright, ready to capture the faintest sounds, body quivering and ready to spring into action. If the dog sees a sudden movement nearby in a bushy area, he may decide to pounce upon the prey or he may decide to chase. If the chase is successful, the dog may grab the prey by the neck bite down and shake. Shaking is typical predatory behavior meant to quickly finish up their prey. Usually, in such a case, you don't see any blood and the affected animal looks intact.
Behaviorists call predatory killing "the quiet bite" because it's not done out of rage. Brain research has shown that during a kill, the circuits responsible for rage are not activated and killing bites are far from the loud, screaming fights seen among two animals fighting. When an animal is on the kill, he'll just bite down hard and shake, explains Temple Grandin in the book "Animals in Translation."
All this predatory behavior may seem to make sense if a dog is hungry, but why would dogs kill cats if they aren't starving and are well fed? Aren't they just acting out for a morbid pleasure of killing? Again, we must consider instinct. Indeed, in a laboratory setting, it was found that an animal's killing bite instinct could be easily turned on by simply implanting electrodes into the predatory circuits of the brain and stimulating them with electricity. The animal didn't have to be hungry nor did it have to see prey, adds Temple Grandin. Dogs remain instinctive beings who don't abide to our moral values as we humans may do sometimes. Their brains aren't that complex as ours and don't kill out of rage ( as discussed, their circuits responsible for rage are not activated) as humans often do. It's unjust to consider a dog killing a cat as a type of murder. A murder is something done with the intent to harm. A dog who is acting out of instinct doesn't have an intentional intent to harm.
However, other than rage, there may be other feelings going on. According to dog trainer David D. Cardona, when hunting, dogs reach an emotional natural high as the neurochemical ‘dopamine’ ends up sending endorphins throughout the dog's body. The hunting action itself therefore, becomes addicting and self-reinforcing." Temple Grandin claims that animals like having their predatory circuits turned on because predatory killing means dinner. When a dog is engaging in predatory behavior, the behavior stems from the same areas of the brain where the "seeking circuits" come from. These are circuits that elicit curiosity, intense interest and anticipation as animals seek what they want. It's a pleasurable feeling a cat that kills a mouse must feel or a primate peeling a ripe banana must feel. As humans we may feel the same way when we catch many fish or go on a grocery shopping spree.
So when we feel like our dogs are being cruel for killing an animal, we are engaging in anthropomorphism, attributing them moral values dogs don't have. "Predatory aggression by a dog does not reflect a psychological problem and neither is the perpetrator vicious, malicious or vindictive." explains veterinary behaviorist Nicholas H. Dodman. As Temple Grandin concludes "Inside the brain, predatory killing and angry aggression are not the same thing. Not even close."
"Predatory aggression by a dog does not reflect a psychological problem and neither is the perpetrator vicious, malicious or vindictive."— Nicholas H. Dodman.
Other Reasons Dogs May Kill a Cat
When a dog kills a cat, predatory drive isn't always necessarily the main culprit, even though it may be a contributing factor. Witnessing what occurred before the incident may reveal some insights as to the dynamics of the behavior. It could happen that the dog was resource guarding an item (food, toy, sleeping place) and the cat came too close and the dog fatally injured the cat. In households where a dog and cat got along for a while, it could be the dog and cat were playing and the cat got accidentally injured.
At times, dogs and cats may interact and then predatory instinct may take over. Sometimes, cats and dogs may be playing, when predatory drift, a phenomenon where a dog's predatory instinct is suddenly turned on, may take effect. A dog may also be chasing a cat out of his perceived territory and then predatory instinct may take over.
In households with multiple dogs, it could happen that one dog is playing and other dogs join in and then predatory instinct may kick in in one dog. It could be a fight erupted among the dogs and the cat fell victim to a re-directed bite for high arousal levels in the dogs. It could be an animal may have entered a fenced yard and frustrated from not being able to catch it, the dogs may have reverted their predatory instincts towards the cat. It could be the cat got panicky for some reason or got some seizure and a dog was stressed by the behavior. It could be a dog wasn't feeling well and the cat failed to read his signals to be left alone.
In a household with dogs who have gotten well along with cats before, one must consider if there were any recent changes that could have caused stress. Stressed dogs may act out of character. It could be one dog may have medical problem that has lowered his threshold for aggression. If dogs aren't exercised enough, their pent-up energy may lead to pestering the cat which could lead to predatory drift. It could be the dogs have started killing other animals and decided to generalize the behavior to the cat if the cat started fleeing. There are several dynamics that may take place, and sometimes a real answer is never known as only assumptions can be made.
Moving on Forward
A dog killing a beloved cat is a cat owner's worse nightmare come true. As much as one was attached to the cat, blaming a dog for acting out of instinct is not helpful. Instinct is hardwired behavior that can be managed and some times, changed but never totally removed. Following are some tips to recover from the loss and prevent future mishaps.
- Manage the environment. If your dog killed a neighbor's cat, after sending condolences and perhaps offering to pay for the burial or cremation services, it's important to take care that nothing similar happens again in the future. Since we are the ones that are responsible for managing our dog's environment, it's our responsibility to protect the animals of others. Sometimes though, cats are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cat owners must also ensure their cats don't get into the property where dogs reside.
- Prevent rehearsal. If a dog is provided with ample of environmental opportunities to act on their predatory drive, through conditioning and rehearsal, the predatory behavior will be fine-tuned and get stronger and will therefore repeat in the future. So when a dog chases or kills a cat, it's important to realize the dog is likely to do it again.
- Protect your other cats. If you have other cats, it's imperative to prevent access to them from now on. Keep them completely separated from your dog or consider re-homing your dog or the cat.
- Seek help. Just because a behavior may be “natural” does not mean that it cannot be changed. In some cases, the implementation of force--free training and behavior modification can help.
- Will my dog now hurt my children? Killing a small animal doesn't necessarily mean the dog would hurt a person, an infant or another dog even though this behavior may indicate the dog is at risk for such problems. Nicholas Dodman warns that some dogs may get overstimulated by fast-running children. It never hurts to always practice caution and always supervise the interactions of dogs and children, whether your dog has a history of killing small animals or not. If you are ever uncomfortable by any situation, consult with a professional to assess your dog.
Disclaimer; this article is not a substitute for hands-on professional behavior advice. If your dog is chasing and killing animals and you are concerned about potential future harm, please seek the aid of a behavior professional for proper assessment and management options.