Asking why dogs chase cats is like asking the age old question “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Basically, like many things dogs do, chasing cats is instinctual and they’re hard-wired to do it. However, you’ll find anomalies in every purebred and mixed breed dog; some will chase cats, some won’t. If you have a hunting, working or terrier breed or mix, there’s a good chance they will chase cats, because they have a stronger drive to do so. Most terriers and even some hounds were used as ratters not that many years ago. Dachshunds were used for hunting badgers and were sent into holes after the badgers to route them out.
The instinct that our domestic dogs inherited from their wolf ancestors is their prey drive. This drive was necessary in the wild so a wolf pack could survive. A mother wolf hunts to feed her pups, and the pack hunts for survival of the fittest pups in the pack, as they are the future of the pack’s longevity. The prey drive causes a lone wolf to hunt anything smaller than itself.
A dog’s prey drive is motivated by movement; it can also be motivated by smell. Racing Greyhounds are trained to chase a mechanical rabbit. Lure coursers chase a scented bait across a field. Herding dogs chase the flocks they protect, nipping at their heels to get them to move. This is all controlled at their base level by the prey drive instinct. If a dog grows up with cats, while they may chase when playing with their feline roommate, they are not as apt to actively chase cats all the time. They may also defend their joint territory against strange cats that intrude in your yard.
If you want your dog and cat to get along, the first step is introducing them. Admittedly it is easier if one or both of them are young, because they are less apt to have preconceptions of what the other species is capable of. If you’re bringing a new puppy home, a good way to introduce them is to crate your puppy and bring the cat into the room the crate is in. If your cat isn’t disturbed by the appearance of your dog, sit on the floor in front of the crate with the cat in your arms and introduce them.
If the cat is unwilling, scared or too wiggly, you can put them in their carrier and set the carrier door facing the crate door, several feet apart. You still want to be nearby watching the interaction and have treats and praise on hand for both your dog and cat. If your dog barks or the cat growls, admonish them but do not punish them; they are just reacting to a new situation. If they behave well, praise them and offer treats to both. By using this method, your dog and cat can get used to the sight of each other without being able to reach each other.
The next step is to let them interact in a room under your supervision. Make sure the room you choose has an escape route for your cat. Make sure your cat’s toenails are trimmed before the encounter, a friendly swat on the nose is one thing, but sharp claws may make your dog re-think the idea of being friends. Put a collar and leash on your dog and put them on a sit/stay in the room.
Have another family member bring the cat in and put them on the floor near the dog. If your dog is calm, praise them and offer them a treat for their good behavior. If your dog rushes the cat or tugs on the leash, tell them “no” and put them back on their sit/stay. Repeat both stages of training several times a day and for the first several months if needed. If your cat is an indoor/outdoor cat, provide sanctuaries both inside and out where they can be away from the dog, because even friends need a break at times. Make sure to feed your cat away from the dog’s reach. A dog eating their food may irritate the cat and make his acceptance of the dog harder.
You can train an adult dog that has not grown up with cats to respect them as another member of your melded pack. I know, because I’ve done it. By having patience, understanding why your dog chases cats, and using the same method of training consistently, you too can have your own peaceable kingdom at home.
Read more articles by Ruthie Bently
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