America’s Top Predator: Stalking Predatory Aggression in Dogs and Cats
Multiple times a week our hospital sees dogs and cats who’ve suffered run-ins with other pets. This very common occurrence mostly manifests as one or two puncture wounds that may or may not require simple surgical attention.
Sometimes, however, the wounds are crushing injuries characteristic of serious attempts to outright kill the animal in question. These are typically the result of a behavior we call "predatory aggression."
Cats do it to birds and small rodents and we call it "natural." Yet when dogs do it to cats or small dogs, we use words like "vicious," "dangerous," or — more behaviorally accurate and politically correct — "predatory."
It’s a cat vs. dog double standard, for sure, but it’s one we deserve to harbor to some extent. After all, we’re accustomed to being able to control our dogs. They’re bred to keep their wolf instincts at bay. I mean, the reason we domesticated them in the first place was to obviate their basic instinct to kill — agricultural species on the homestead in particular.
Though cats continue to engage in their wild antics by killing mice and such while still enjoying the fruits of their domesticity, dogs don’t get that kind of a pass — not unless we're talking about the relatively few terriers that still engage in owner-sanctioned varmint eradication behaviors.
Example No. 1: Dogs who have killed cats and other dogs — even in their own yards — have been deemed "dangerous" by law. In some municipalities (Broward County, Florida, for example) there’s a one-strike and you’re on the municipal shelter’s death row policy.
Example No. 2: Even if your dog is on a leash and crushes a free-roaming dog who gets in his face, you may not be liable for injury treatment … but your defensive predatory biter will almost certainly get a dangerous dog designation. In Miami-Dade, where I live, there’s a three-strike rule on incidents like these.
Nonetheless, the killing of certain species by dogs is completely understandable. Given an animal's perfect dog-prey size and what some dog breeds are bred and trained for (think about terrier breeds, sighthounds, coonhounds, etc.), it makes sense that a dog might feel driven to kill a smaller species. Yet predation is largely considered an unwanted behavior that needs to be controlled — more so in this highly suburbanized world where pets are family and a beloved teacup Chihuahua can easily be mistaken for a robust rat.
So what’s the difference between a "predatory" bite and a regular one (out of dominance, territorial aggression, fear, etc.)? Great question.
Predatory aggression in dogs and cats is normal. It’s not a psychological problem or a reflection of vicious, malicious or vindictive thinking on the part of the attacker. Because predatory behavior is normal for these domesticated species, predatory aggression becomes a problem to be defined and categorized only when it conflicts with our human desires to maintain a calm household, ensure positive neighborly relations, and pursue environmental harmony, despite our pets’ innate desire to wreak havoc on local wildlife.
These are tough standards for some pets, to be sure, but worth pursuing nonetheless. Because nothing’s worse than keeping an otherwise wonderful dog who likes nothing better than to skin the occasional neighborhood cat (while he's still on his leash) in view of every cat-loving neighbor (who are doubtless having cows over all the blood and gore suddenly in evidence on their formerly pristine suburban sidewalks).
The worst part of predatory aggression is not just that it’s perfectly normal behavior. It’s that in so being, it's also the type of behavior that is least amenable to treatment. Because — of course — treatment kinda implies the behavior is abnormal, and it’s not. Sorta tough to rewire a normal psyche just to match your personal human specs, but there you have it. Proper behavior is always in the eye of the beholder, in’t it?
Dr. Patty Khuly