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Dogs are predators – but we often don’t really want them to act out those predatory instincts. Some dogs are more “high prey drive” than others. Is it even possible to train a high prey drive dog to live with a kitten? If so, how?
Our Certified Dog Behavior Consultants tackle this question in today’s “Ask a Behavior Consultant.”
Can a dog with a high prey drive be trained to live with a kitten? We introduced our dog to the kitten we’d like to adopt, and the kitten was calm but our dog seemed like she wanted to bite her and shake her like a toy.
– Sincerely, Cats Are Friends Not Food
What Is Prey Drive?
Well… that’s a good question. When I say “prey drive,” I mean that a dog acts in a way that suggests he really wants to chase, catch, kill, and even eat a prey animal.
Of course, we can’t really ask the dog. And we don’t want to sacrifice a cat (or even a squirrel) to find out what the dog really wants.
I don’t know why Cats Are Friends Not Food thinks her dog wants to bite and shake the kitten. She reported that her dog was drooling with dilated pupils and could not be distracted with treats, despite normally being very food motivated. That’s definitely concerning.
Certain dogs are more likely to have high prey drive – Greyhounds, Terriers and Huskies come to mind.
As your dog gets more excited, it’s also potentially more likely for your dog to “tip over” into predatory aggression. It’s kind of like how excited fans at sports events are more likely to get into fights than their office-going alter-egos (alcohol intoxication aside, though that’s also definitely a factor).
You can see the differences between different dogs and their prey drives even at young ages. Some pups will chase, grab, and shake a flirt pole. Others will stalk it but never bite.
My border collie loves chasing things – but when a squirrel fell out of a tree and plopped between his paws, he didn’t pounce. Instead, he lay down – a common herding behavior.
The problem for cat owners is that even a dog who just wants to chase can be really stressful for the kitty. A dog that wants to do more is downright dangerous.
Can Prey Drive Be Trained Out of Dogs?
It’s certainly possible in many cases to teach a dog with high prey drive to safely live with cats. That said, it’s not easy, and it’s not guaranteed.
There are some cases where it’s just not going to be safe for your dog and a cat to coexist. It’s not worth the risk. So yes, you can train some high prey drive dog to live with cats – but not all of them.
True predatory aggression – especially if the dog has actually caught and harmed or killed a cat in the past – is not an easy fix. If your dog already has that sort of history, I’d be very hesitant to bring a cat home. The margin for error is just too slim.
Your goal with a high prey drive dog should be to teach your dog to think through his excitement and redirect the behaviors elsewhere. This is best taught using something other than the cat as “bait” for obvious reasons.
How Do You Make High Prey Drive Dogs Safe for Cats?
Here’s what to do if you decide that you’re ready to introduce your high prey drive dog to a cat. This entire protocol is outlined in a slightly different case on our podcast, Canine Conversations. Listen here.
1. Use two levels of safety.
I suggest using a muzzle (
This is important!
Most of our dog-cat introductions will take place through a door at first, but once we’re using gates and pens and tie-downs, I want a muzzle involved as well.
Even if the kitten is behind a closed door, I’d like a gate or exercise pen involved to make sure no one slips through when a human is going from one room to the next.
2. Practice engage/disengage games with the dog separately from the cat.
Start teaching the dog to pay attention to you instead of squirrels and other exciting things.
Use the protocol outlined in the video below.
As described, you need to:
- Start far away from the “trigger.”
- You’ll reward your dog for checking in with you at first.
- Eventually, you’ll ask your dog to “work” around the distractor.
- Then you can start moving closer.
You can also play the Ready, Set, Down game (#11 on the linked list) with a tug or a flirt pole for extra practice around exciting toys.
3. Work on scent swapping.
While the kitten and dog are living in separate parts of the house, be sure you swap out their sleeping spaces every few days.
You can simply put an old towel on the dog and cat’s favorite resting places to soak up
4. Teach the dog to calmly lie on her mat.
This is an important basic step. We’ll use your dog’s mat-laying skills later on. Check out Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol for an excellent plan to make your dog into a mat-laying SUPERSTAR.
5. Introduce the dog to the sound of the cat.
YouTube has plenty of videos of cats meowing. While your dog might not be perfectly fooled by the sound of a YouTube cat, you can start to introduce your dog to this sound in a controlled way – unlike the meowing of a real cat.
Start by playing the sound while your dog is calmly lying on the mat, then giving your dog a treat. Do this 30 times. Then play the sound and wait for your dog to look at you. When she does, give her a treat. Do this 30 more times. You can do this around mealtimes with her dinner as a replacement for treats.
6. Introduce the dog to the sight of the cat.
Using a baby gate and tie-down, let your dog and cat see each other. The tie-down will help keep the dog further back from the gate. If the cat is likely to jump over the gate, stack the gates or muzzle the dog. See #7 for what happens next.
7. Feed them on opposite sides of a gate.
As you’re letting them see each other through the gate, feed them a meal. If your dog won’t eat, you’re too close to the cat.
Back up or use a towel to mostly cover the sight of the cat. If she still won’t eat when they’re as far apart as possible, go back to more scent-swapping, games (#2) and sound practice.
Over time, reduce the space between the dog and cat.
Practice asking your dog to walk with you, respond to training, eat, look away from the cat, and lie on her mat. If she can’t do those things yet, you’re not ready to reduce space between the dog and cat.
8. Practice in the open.
One the dog is able to calmly lie on her mat, pay attention to her owners, and eat treats on the other side of the baby gate with the kitten nearby, it’s time to remove the gate.
Again, we want to use a muzzle and tie-down for this stage to keep the kitty safe.
Now the kitty is able to move about.
We’ll keep playing the engage-disengage game (#2) and practice putting the dog on her mat while the kitty moves around.
If this is going well and the dog is readily ignoring the cat or calmly noticing the cat, we’re getting close!
If the dog is still hyper-fixated on the cat, go back to the last step where you were successful. If things are getting worse instead of better, get help – you might be inadvertently building frustration in your dog.
9. Fully introduce.
This sounds like a lot – and it is. But with a large dog and a small kitten, it’s far better to be safe than sorry. You might be able to breeze through these steps in just a few days, or it might take months to properly introduce your pets.
I’ve worked with several people for months to get their dogs and cats to get along. It’s not always easy!
If you’re really struggling, I strongly recommend getting help from a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant nearby. If there’s no one nearby, you might be able to get help remotely (from me or someone else).
If you’re truly stuck and don’t have the money for help, it might be safest to rehome the kitten. It’s just not worth the risk.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
I would like updated emails if you do them. Your informative and thankyou
Is there any additional steps to help an older daschund (11 yo) be acclimated to a kitten… When the sounds of her toys seem similar to a kittens mew? Would extra sound training help?
Yes, you might want to try playing with YouTube videos to teach the dog the difference between meowing and toys squeaking!
We have 2 border collies, we live on a farm and recently got a cats to be our barn mouser… the introduction and past couple of weeks went great! Both border collies didn’t seem to mind and they interacted great with the cats. A few weeks later, not so much… all of a sudden, we lost both cats to the 1 border collie. It took us by surprise considering a few weeks had already gone by… we noticed a trend though. The border collie was fine, until we came home from somewhere in our car, Or if my husband came home from work, he would snap into predator mode and was full of excitement with our arrival…. that’s the time he killed our cats. How on earth could you train this out of him when it’s only triggered by our arrival after we leave. Even for a short period of time. Thanks!
We have a 6 year old German Wire Haired Pointer that has been with us for a year. She always lived with cats in her former home and we had a cat for most of her time with us until she passed in January. We just got a 7 week old kitten and the dog very much wants to bite the kitten. She locks in o her, cant be distracted and tried to snip at her through a gate. I dont know why she is having this behaviour as she could be in the same room as my cat before (that cat was 13 when they met though). The dog was a hunting dog so I know she has some learned behaviour from that but again had always been around cats. Perhaps because the kitten is so small? They are separated for now but not sure how to proceed to get them used to one another?
Would you like to schedule a consult to see if I can help you problem-solve? Just hover over the 1-on-1 training tab on the menu of the site to see your options. I’ve got so many questions and suggestions for you! And be sure you’re using the tips already laid out in this article.
I’d love to hear your tips for the familiarisation of our recent rescue dog and our two cats. She has had a couple of chances to chase them (although not in the last 4 weeks or so) and so now they don’t want to come home. When they pop back to eat I will sit next to Winnie (our dog) and treat her every time she looks at me so she links seeing the cats as being a positive thing and being rewarded, but the problem I have is that the cats will rarely come back/be in her presence. I find it so hard to train her when the cats are never around. Do I keep them all in together (safely) and work on it step by step so we make progress? All the time our cats are camping in the neighbours garden then they’re not interested in coming home, so no progress made. It’s so hard. Xx
Hi Sarah, yes, dog-cat intros can be SO hard. I did a video on the topic here: https://journeydogtraining.com/dog-cat-intros/
Our dog is older and has a high prey drive. The kitten hisses at the dog, so it makes it even harder for our dog to ignore the cat. The other day I went into town with the cat and left the dog at home with my partner. Our dog was acting strange, not getting up to go outside, being unusually lazy, no interest in going for a walk and not eating.
Hi Shannon – have you spoken to your vet? If your dog is refusing to eat, I’d call the vet.
I got my dog when he was 12 weeks old. He is now 8 months old. This whole time he has lived with our cats and their kittens and we never had a problem. That is why we got a puppy, so that he would grow up knowing cats. Our cats have always been nice to him. But now, all of a sudden, he has killed 3 kittens and 2 adults. I love my cats and my dog, but this can’t continue. I don’t want to try to rehome him. Because of his size and his breed I’m too worried that he will be used as bait or be made into a fighter. And it would break my heart to have to chain him up…that’s a cruel way to live.
Hi Wendy. I’m sorry, what a tragic situation. We’d be happy to help you get to the bottom of this in a one-on-one consultation. You can find the link to that in the menu above, but unfortunately we can’t get into specifics of your case in the blog comments section.
Hello, I have a jackabe (Its a cross between a beagle and a jack Russell Terrier) and she has a high prey drive. We recently got two kittens and the
dog is only a year old and gets in their faces and they hiss and swat but they’re currently separated and I wanted some tips on how to help them get along. She has already been with two senior cats and they were ok with each other but she won’t stop getting in the kittens face. Thank you!
Hi Payton, if the advice in the article isn’t sufficient I’d suggest scheduling a consultation with our team.
If we have already tried introducing them , did we possibly ruin the chance of them being friends ?
Not necessarily, although if it went badly that can set things back a bit!
Hi I have an American bulldog and I’ve just brought home a 9 week old kitten could i get some advice on how I should introduce them together we have started to the dog just wants to play and the kitten hisses
Hi Shannon, we’ve got a few articles on dog/cat intros that you can check out here: https://journeydogtraining.com/introducing-dogs-to-kittens/ and https://journeydogtraining.com/introducing-cats-and-dogs-creating-a-peaceful-household/
We just got an 8 month old kitten and she seems fine with our 2 dogs but the dogs don’t seem to like her. I tried to have them sniff her and my older dog tried to lunge and bite her. She constantly is trying to get upstairs to sit by the door the cat is in. i would love any tips and tricks to help make the meeting go smoother and hopefully make sure the dog doesn’t try to eat the cat.
Hi Hannah – that’s tricky! I hope this article can help you out a bit more: https://journeydogtraining.com/introducing-cats-and-dogs-creating-a-peaceful-household/
Hi we have rescued a husky that we will rehome we just want to help him as much as possible while hes with us. We have 4 huskies and sled race and have a rottweiller we also have 2 cats and everyone gets along, the huskies love our cats. Normal training, treats, redirection, near and far introduction then seperation, doesnt seem to be helping at all with the rescue, hes a 1yr old male. This dog was living in a crate most the day and also escaping to roam the busy neighborhood they lived in, I fear he may have harmed a cat before as he has a major prey driven fixation with our cats. We have him on a leash inside all of the time so far unless hes out in the pen. My question is do you think we should give up on the cat stuff? It feels like it wont be possible to train this out of him but everything else hes learning super well with and we dont want to scold him too much as hes such a sweet boy and needs confidence building. or should we keep taking baby steps to try and help him to understand kitties are friends not food.