Case Study: Cat Attacking Dog
Cat’s name: Smudge
Breed: Siamese/ Domestic Shorthair mix
Sex: Neutered male
Age: 7 years
Other animals in home: 13-year-old spayed female Pomeranian dog named Bee
Smudge was found by his owner in a box full of kittens of mixed ages, which had been left in front of the Petco where she worked at the time. He was approximately 6 weeks old at the time of abandonment. The client adopted him and brought him home, slowly integrating him into the house with her two dogs over the course of a few weeks.
For the first four months Smudge got along with the dogs well, but then started stalking, pouncing on, biting, and rolling both dogs periodically. The client had him neutered at 6 months of age. After the neuter, the behaviors towards the dogs persisted.
Being a dog trainer herself, the client tried to resolve the issue in the following ways over the course of a few years:
- Provide more enrichment and exercise for Smudge:
- She built cat shelves and elevated walkways on all the walls in the living room.
- She built a cat-proof fence, and provides daily monitored outside time in her backyard, weather permitting.
- While still free-feeding kibble and giving wet food daily, she started hiding some of his kibble around the house and on the cat shelves to encourage him to forage.
- She bought cat toys to encourage play, but Smudge showed no interest in toys. The only way she was able to play with Smudge was through brief sessions of chasing a string, or throwing treats and having him run to get them.
- Screaming at Smudge as an interrupter. While this worked in the short term to temporarily stop the attack, it did not reduce the attacking behaviors overall.
- A calming collar, which had no observable effect.
- Giving Smudge a treat every time he saw one of the dogs.
- Throwing a treat down the stairs to get Smudge to leave the kitchen any time she wanted to take the dogs to or from the house to the backyard.
- Finally, management: compartmentalizing the house and keeping the dogs and cat separated at all times, giving them turns being out in the main part of the house.
She managed her household like this for many years – during which time her other dog passed away, leaving Bee as the only dog in the house – until I moved into the area, at which point she contacted me to set up a consult.
At our first consult, Smudge sauntered up to me with a question mark tail. After a quick sniff session, he rubbed against me and pushed his head into my hand for petting. As the client and I discussed his behaviors and routine in more detail, he curled up between us, purring. As soon as the client carried Bee into the room at my request, though, Smudge immediately crouched low, focusing intently on Bee with his muscles tensed and his tail twitching. Before he had an opportunity to escalate, I asked the client to remove Bee from the room. After a few seconds of staring intently in the direction they went, Smudge returned to his former relaxed state.
We discussed the conditioned emotional response Smudge had to seeing Bee, and how we not only needed to change the way he feels about Bee but also teach him what we want him to do instead of stalking and attacking her. We also discussed that even though she had already done a wonderful job of creating an enriching environment for Smudge, there were ways we could utilize that environment more effectively to better meet Smudge’s needs. And finally, I explained that the absence of a play response in the presence of toys usually does not mean disinterest but rather inexperience. Consequently, we needed to teach Smudge how to play with toys.
Since the client was already an adept dog trainer and had already clicker trained Smudge to perform some basic behaviors such as sit and come, I recommended shaping play behaviors. We decided to start with the fishing pole toy since Smudge already enjoyed chasing string, and got through the following steps at our training session:
- Smudge looks at the toy.
- Smudge points his nose towards the toy.
- Smudge leans towards the toy.
- Smudge walks towards the toy.
- Smudge touches the toy with his nose.
We ended the session there, and I gave her the following training plan:
- Continue managing the environment and preventing Smudge and Bee from having unmonitored interactions.
- Continue shaping play behaviors:
- Smudge interacts with a toy in any way: nudging with his nose, grabbing with his mouth, batting at it with his paws, etc.
- Increase duration of interactions with toys.
- Capture unsolicited interactions with toys.
- Generalize to other types of toys.
- Phase out click and treat for play interactions, when Smudge consistently plays with any of the toys.
- Discontinue free feeding kibble.
- Twice daily, provide at least 15 minutes of play and exercise that involves Smudge chasing, catching, and “killing” something, followed by his wet food meal. This allows him to perform the hunt-kill-eat-groom cycle at least twice a day.
- Feed a measured, consistent amount of kibble in increasingly challenging food puzzles. I recommended starting with the Slim Cat Ball, since its easiest setting offers a high rate of reinforcement for very simple behaviors, and it offers several levels of increasing difficulty until the final setting requires quite a bit of play and manipulation to get all the food out. Then she could branch out to other toys from there.
After about a month, when both Smudge and the client were comfortable with the new routine and Smudge had become adept at both foraging and playing with toys, we began to work on changing Smudge’s relationship with Bee. We started with the forward chaining version of the “Look At That” game:
- In Phase One, the client would either put Bee in the yard with the solid door open but the screen door closed, so she and Smudge could see Bee but not have access to her. Or, if the client’s husband were available to help, he would hold Bee in his arms while standing somewhere in the house.
- Either way, the client would sit with Smudge at a distance where he was under threshold and still able to respond to the clicker. His initial threshold was about 20 feet.
- Any time Smudge looked at Bee while under threshold, the client would click and give Smudge a high-value treat—usually pieces of boiled chicken or low-sodium lunch meats cut up into pine nut-sized pieces. This step was repeated until Smudge began to look at Bee and then immediately look back at the client.
- In Phase Two, Smudge would look at Bee, then look back at the client before receiving the click/treat. This step was repeated until Smudge was consistent at immediately checking in with the client as soon as he saw Bee.
- In Phase Three, we phased out the clicker and treat. Instead, when Smudge looked at Bee and then looked back at the client, she would instigate play with a toy. This step was repeated until Smudge would look at Bee, promptly check in with the client, then immediately start looking for a toy to play with.
- In Phase Four we removed the barriers and worked on this while Smudge and Bee were in the same room.
Over time, they have been able to leave Smudge and Bee together in the same space for increasing periods of time, and both dog and cat are voluntarily moving closer to each other. My client sent me a picture, about three months into training, of Smudge and Bee hanging out together in the backyard.
A few weeks after that, she sent me a video of Smudge casually walking by Bee, looking at her, then checking in with the client. It has been ten months since the initial consult and the two animals coexist peacefully without any incidents.
Emily Strong, CPBC, CPBT-KA is the owner and operator of From Beaks to Barks in Salt Lake City, UT. She works with all species of companion animals.