My dog killed a rabbit; what keeps her from killing our cat?
December 15, 2017 6:43 AM   Subscribe

Our 30 pound Australian cattledog/Boston terrier mix Tilly has shown a fondness for hunting moles and even birds; last night she cornered a rabbit and broke its neck. She’s been playful but not aggressive with our cat and the neighbor’s cats (all indoor cats) when she stays overnight at their house. We are mildly worried that she might kill a pet, since she likes to hunt things and her targets seem to be getting bigger. What’s keeping her from killing a cat?
posted by deliriouscool to Pets & Animals (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Honestly? This isn’t terribly well understand and with some frequency ‘well trained’ pet dogs will kill a cat they’ve lived with for years.

You and the cat are lucky, and I hope that this remains the case. One common thing that seems to trigger the prey drive in a dog with a pet cat is the cat making a sudden movement. You’ve met the cat, they make sudden movements all the time.
posted by bilabial at 6:51 AM on December 15, 2017 [6 favorites]

Dogs are social animals. They know who, both human and animal, are members of the group to which they belong. I have nothing to back up that assertion except decades of living with dogs and cats.
posted by Homer42 at 6:54 AM on December 15, 2017 [9 favorites]

Best answer: I am in the exact same situation, and I think it is in part the prey drive only activates on things that act like prey. Our cat mostly holds her ground (usually on a chair or otherwise at a height advantage) growling and hissing, occasionally swiping, and generally acting annoyed. But not scared, probably because she's also a predator (and a more accomplished rabbit killer than the dog, incidentally). I'm guessing that the cat's behavior prevents her from looking like prey to the dog.
posted by dbx at 6:56 AM on December 15, 2017 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Some dogs have such a strong prey drive that they are not able to safely cohabitate with cats. On the other hand, a clawed swat is enough for some dogs to make the connection that "this is a being I don't want to mess with" , along with it being seen as a part of the pack.
posted by Fig at 6:58 AM on December 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

I think it's a combination of cats not acting like prey, and also that dogs do know who is a member of the family. My dog gets along fine with my cat, and often tries to play with her (play bowing, etc.) When the cat gets fed up with this, she gives her a swat and the dog gets the message.
When they are outside together, the cat will often hang out by the dogs. But every once in a while when the dogs see the cat running for whatever reason, my dog is immediately taken over by her prey drive and automatically chases the cat. But in the rare instance that the dog can actually catch up the the cat, she will turn around and stand her ground, and the dog has a chance to snap out of it and recognize her. And I have honestly never felt that the dog was actually being aggressive or was going to hurt the cat when she caught her. She just wants to chase.
I'm sure there are some dogs that are never going to be safe with cats, but if they generally get along you probably don't have much to worry about, especially if your dog only interacts with the cats indoors.
posted by catatethebird at 7:18 AM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Dogs also have weird and strong imprints as to what is or isn't prey. My dogs won't even look at a cow or a horse, but will melt down if they see a deer. Obviously a cat is more visually similar to prey, but it's not like the dog is unable to distinguish 'that cat I live with' from 'squeaky next meal'.
posted by so fucking future at 8:02 AM on December 15, 2017 [2 favorites]

Nothing, technically. I had dogs and cats for years and years with no issues, including foster dogs of unknown provenance and a greyhound who was not just cat-tolerant but put up with my one extremely affectionate tortie who would rub all over his face while he sighed and eyerolled and eventually grunted at her and she'd stop. With him, I was careful about the cats coming outside (which they did sometimes) while he was out because his prey drive was mostly motion-activated and a few squirrels had lost that race, but he knew perfectly well there was a difference between Our Fuzzies and Chasing Fuzzies. My cats were generally pretty dog-savvy and my current batch of dogs had never not lived with my cats.

Those dogs were 3-4 years old when they killed at least one of the cats. We'd recognized that one of the dogs was getting increasingly predatory (you don't see dogs catch mockingbirds and big jays very often) and sometimes seemed to have the wrong kind of interest in the cats and started keeping the them sequestered, but the dogs got through a door on two occasions when we weren't home. The first time they hurt one and either killed the other or maybe just scared her to death (she was very old), and killed the first one the second time.

I think lots of mixed households get by on luck, highly-domesticated dogs, and smart cats. But you should be vigilant that your cat has escape routes and dog-proof hiding vectors, and you need to keep an eye on both of them as they age. A healthy non-elderly dog and cat may have one kind of relationship, it may change as one or both of them age or one of them develops cognitive or mobility issues. I started noticing Sophie's heightened interest in the cats right around the same time the oldest cat started having some neurological problems and the third cat - the dog loving tortie - just died in the night for reasons unknown, and in retrospect we realized she had slowed down pretty dramatically in the previous months.

Was this just Sophie's escalating predator instinct, did something in her personality dramatically change (this all started after she was treated for heartworms and spayed), or was she taking out the "weak" members of the pack? Was it even her? We assume it was her but both girldogs had scratches on their faces. The first time they breeched the door, they had been home alone during a tornado and our thunderphobic dog had chewed and clawed through it with such dedication that all the black came off his nose; did that change the dogs or their dynamics? There's no real way to answer any of those questions, but it's easy to think your dog won't kill your cat because it hasn't so far, but that is not actually a guarantee that it won't happen in the future.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:03 AM on December 15, 2017 [11 favorites]

The chase response. Dogs have a "programmed" chain of events that occur in hunting situations. Spot prey, make prey run, then prey runs, running prey triggers chase response, chase response triggers catch response catch response triggers kill response. Most behaviours dogs are bred into dogs (as opposed to trained) to do are basically stopping the dogs behaviour somewhere along that line with some training on top. Retriever does everything but the kill response a sheep herding dog does everything up to the catch response. A cattle dog can include a modified bite/grab response & you get a heeler that nips at cattles heels.

Basically your dog doesn't kill your cat because your cat doesn't run, it's not triggering the chain of events that leads to the killing. I have a Rat Terrier. He's killed wild rabbits & Squirrels & tried to take down a skunk. I owned 2 Guinea Pigs (never alone with him & kept in a secure cage in a separate room) he showed no interest in them when in the room as they were tame & would walk toward him to sniff him. If they had run in fear & not been i their cage, he'd have tried to get them so quickly I could never have stopped him.

So what it boils down to is if your cat never does anything to trigger the chase response it should be OK. But if your cat startles or is even chasing something itself & this sets off your dogs chase response, then things can go wrong very quickly.

The chase response is almost a reflex in dogs & is normal dog behaviour (& why they like games like fetch). This page offers some good training techniques for chase responsive dogs around cats, to work on if it is a concern.

Unrelated side note This is also why you never run from a dog if it's approaching you aggressively but back away slowly without turning your back on it, so you don't trigger it's chase/hunt/kill response.
posted by wwax at 8:29 AM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

Dogs are social animals. They know who, both human and animal, are members of the group to which they belong. I have nothing to back up that assertion except decades of living with dogs and cats.

And this social order may be reinforced by you, the alpha in the pack, treating the cat with respect. In our case, we side with the cat and shout at our dog when she gets aggressive or tries to assert dominance over our cat, who stands her ground with hissing and swiping her paws.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:30 AM on December 15, 2017 [3 favorites]

Just echoing what other have said with an amusing story about it.

I once had a poodle (Cleo) and a parakeet (Anthony). Once in a while, the parakeet would get out of his cage while changing papers or swapping food, and I'd be sure to quickly get the bird back to safety, because Cleo was definitely seeing the bird as a snack.

But one day, Anthony escaped and was walking around the living when Cleo lunged and got her teeth around him. I was able to quickly grab Cleo's collar and pull her away while I yelled "NO!" very loudly and suddenly. She dropped Anthony and both bird and dog were unharmed, although we were all three a bit shaken.

After that, Cleo had zero interest in the bird. I could even deliberately let Anthony out to fly or walk around. Cleo would just ignore him. Then, Anthony got curious about Cleo and would start walking up to her and pecking around her fur. Cleo would just slowly walk away. It got to the point where at times the emboldened Anthony would actually chase Cleo around the living room, the dog looking cautiously behind her as she tried to find a place to escape.
posted by The Deej at 9:49 AM on December 15, 2017 [5 favorites]

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