By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 16 July 2011)
A cat is more likely to bluff by growling, hissing, and puffing up than to launch a full-scale attack against a dog, but there are situations in which a cat will be actively aggressive. Common causes of cat-to-dog aggression are defensiveness, predatory drive, misdirected hostility, and playful aggression.
Defensive or Territorial Aggression
The most common cause of cat attacks on dogs is defensive aggression – a fearful cat may launch a pre-emptive strike. Cats may also attack to defend their territory. If the dog invades the cat’s space or begins making use of the cat’s resources (beds, food dishes, etc.), the cat may feel a need to defend his territory.
Cats don’t usually show predatory aggression toward large dogs, but they may do so with small dogs or puppies. Often this behaviour will diminish with time as the cat matures and the dog grows larger. If a cat is showing predatory behaviour, the puppy or small dog should be separated from the cat using baby gates or by putting him inside an upended baby playpen when you can’t directly supervise their interactions.
A cat will occasionally begin to victimize a dog due to misdirected aggression. The cat, frustrated because he’s seen an animal outside the window that he can’t get to, attacks the dog. If the dog behaves like a victim by running away, the cat may continue to treat him as a scapegoat.
If misdirected aggression is the cause of bullying behaviour, you may have to block access to the window or windows through which the cat sees other animals. Using a product such as Sticky Paws on the windowsill can keep the cat from sitting there.
In some cases an aggressive cat is just playing; a wiggling dog tail looks like a cat toy, and the cat pounces, after which the play may get out of hand.
How to Prevent Fights Between Cats and Dogs
Preventive actions that can be taken to reduce cat-to-dog aggression include:
- Spaying or neutering cats to reduce aggressiveness
- Making use of relaxing pet pheromones such as D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) and Feliway for cats
- Preventing the dog from getting into the cat’s food or litter box to reduce territorial defensiveness
- Putting a bell on the cat to give the dog fair warning so that he can avoid confrontation
- Giving the cat a place to escape to (a tall cat tree or cat tunnel) to reduce the likelihood that the fight element of the fight-or-flight response will be triggered
- Rewarding the cat with treats, affection, and praise when he behaves calmly in the presence of the dog
- Providing each animal with his own toys, food bowls, and bed
- Purchasing an electronic pet door that opens only in response to the dog’s collar to give the dog a means of escape when he’s being harassed
- Using baby gates or other barriers to create permanent safe spaces for the dog in extreme cases of feline aggression
If the aggression seems to be playfulness getting out of hand rather than territoriality or fearful defensiveness, attaching a leash to the dog’s collar can be beneficial. The dog will drag the leash around and the cat will be more inclined to attack the moving leash than the dog.
If the pets have developed a victim-aggressor association, they may have to be separated for days or even weeks until the association is broken. This can be done using baby gates or some other barrier to separate two areas of the house.
How to Break up Fights Between a Cat and a Small Dog
A big dog that is being harassed by a cat can usually take care of himself, but a small dog is more likely to be injured or traumatized in a fight. In the case that a fight does break out, the following strategies can be used to break it up:
- Make a loud noise – drop a heavy book or bang two objects together.
- Spray the combatants with water or toss water over them (try to avoid squirting or splashing their eyes).
- Protect your hand with an oven mitt and place a barrier between them. This could be anything from a cookie sheet to a large book to a pillow.
- Throw a thick blanket over the combatants so that you’re less likely to be clawed or bitten when you break up the fight.
- Wrap the aggressor in a blanket or thick towel and bundle him out of the room. Keep him in another room until he has calmed down.
When breaking up cat-and-dog fights, there are two important things to remember. First, yelling isn’t recommended, as this tends to increase aggression rather than diminish it. And second, cats don’t respond well to punishment. In fact, punishment is likely to increase aggression in cats, as it makes them fearful and defensive. Rewarding the cat for good behaviour is far more effective than punishing bad behaviour.
Once the fight is over, ignore the cat (or both animals if the fight was mutual rather than one-sided) for at least half an hour. This enables you to signal displeasure and avoid rewarding the bad behaviour with extra attention.