Going for a walk is a dog’s great pleasure. He needs the exercise but also the constant new stimulus of sights, sounds and most importantly, smells. After all, it is a ‘dog’s life.’ But, if during his walks he spies a cat and becomes fearful, what are you to do? Panting, whining, cowering and putting his tail between his legs are all common signs that your dog is experiencing fear. Fear is an instinctual feeling generated by the autonomic response system. Fear is normal and essential for survival. However, the context of the fear determines whether the response is considered acceptable. A dog fearing cats is not typical, but it does happen. Dogs having fears, or more intense phobias can cause anxiety to both pet and owner. Understanding a dog’s fear and its triggers as well as how to help him work through his fear is essential. If your dog is exhibiting signs of fear in the presence of cats, he is definitely afraid and often for good reason. Before you throw your paws up in the air, however, know that you can be instrumental in reconditioning him to have a more appropriate response. In a few simple steps, you and your hound can approach the streets confidant that fluffy will do no harm.
The Root of the Behavior
Cats are typically smaller and less social than dogs. But, ask anyone with experience with cats and they can tell you that there are few things scarier than an angry cat. When cats sense fear, they can raise their backs with their hair standing on end all the while hissing, bearing sharp teeth and claws, and moving quickly in seemingly multiple directions. In addition, a cat scratch or bite stings and can cause infection when not properly treated. When your dog exhibits signs of fear around a cat, he has probably had a ‘ruff’ experience with an angry cat and has not forgotten that altercation. Typically, if a dog has been socialized with a cat he will not have a fearful response. However, dogs that have not spent time with cats will either choose to chase them or will fear them. Add in a negative experience and you have a full blown whimpering, panting and pacing canine.
All dogs can experience and exhibit signs of fear. If the presence of the behavior becomes persistent or excessive then it is considered a phobia. The anticipation of an event causing signs of fear is anxiety. Dogs tend to be afraid of and develop fears to things such as thunder, the vet, children, fireworks, and separation. Certain large dog breeds such as the Siberian Husky, Standard Poodle, German Shorthaired Pointer, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Great Pyrenees, Border Collie, and Bernese Mountain Dog appear to have a strong family genetic component predisposing them to fear of random things. Dogs will start to develop fears, phobias, and anxieties at the onset of social maturity from one to three years of age. Younger dogs, around the ages of eight to ten months, can develop a profound fear of unknown origin. Elderly dogs, as their decline in memory begins, can also develop fears such as separation anxiety.
Encouraging the Behavior
As pet lovers, your instinctive reaction to a dog exhibiting fear is to console him, protect him, and assure him that he is all right. While this instinct appears to be the most compassionate response, it will only encourage his inappropriate response to the cat and allow the fear to continue. Rather, you need to teach your dog to remain calm in the presence of a cat and this can be done through a combination of desensitization and counterconditioning. These tools are most effective when used early on, so do not hope that the fear will pass with age but rather address it immediately. Your ultimate goal is to decrease your dog’s reaction to the cat to enable him to be around a cat and remain at peace. To desensitize him, he must be exposed to cat repeatedly in a controlled environment. Your greatest option is to befriend someone who has a feline that has been highly socialized with dogs and has no history of negative altercations with dogs. Spend time with your dog and this new-found friendly feline. Should your dog become stressed during these visits, remain calm and simply walk away with your dog. Make a point to re-introduce the cat in a short time frame. The goal is to increase time spent with the cat until the dog can exhibit the desired response of peace. Counter-conditioning is when you train your dog to perform a positive behavior in place of the fear. You could train him to sit beside you, lay at your feet, or simply to remain unmoved. Whenever he exhibits these behaviors, be sure to reward him and increase the reward when in the presence of a cat.
Other Solutions and Considerations
One of the best ways to ensure your dog can face the world without fears is through early exposure to social situations and different environments. The more he experiences during the first few months of life the less likely he will have fears during his lifetime. If this was not a possibility, and the above suggestions for desensitization and counterconditioning are not effective, take heart and know that you can teach an old dog new tricks. A visit to your veterinarian to eliminate possible physiological conditions that might be causing the behaviors such as thyroid disorders or an environmental trigger such as lead poisoning might be in order. Your greatest asset, however, can be a dog trainer who can assist you and your dog in conquering his fears. A dog fearing cats is not common, but it is certainly treatable. Often, the emotional instincts you have for your pet can overshadow your ability to train him through his struggle. Trainers are essential in teaching both you and your pet the best course of action to ensure peaceful social interactions with other people and pets.
Fear is a natural part of life. It is how you handle the fear that impacts your quality of life. If your dog has fears, do not hope they will go away on their own. It can be ‘ruff’ but address his fears head-on with early socialization, or if manifesting in an older pet, then through desensitization and counterconditioning. A trainer experienced in working with pets with fears can be a great way to alleviate your dog’s fears as well as provide a foundation for more positive behaviors and encounters in the future.