Family Feuds

Jacqui Neilson, DVM, DACVB


When pets within a household are not getting along it can be very disconcerting and disruptive to the family.  It can also be dangerous:  both pets and humans can sustain serious injuries secondary to family feuds.  The most common in-home feuds are described below with treatment programs to regain harmony in the home. 

Canine-Canine Aggression

When two dogs in the same household are fighting, dominance or social status issues are usually the underlying problem.  Although aggression between household dogs can occur at any time, dominance aggression often develops when a new dog is introduced into the household or when one of the dogs in the household reaches social maturity (12-36 months).  Other inciting factors may include a change in the social situation or one animal becoming debilitated.  Dogs will usually fight over valuable resources including resting spots, toys, food and attention. Well-meaning owners often complicate the problem by trying to enforce equality in the household.  Often owners report that the aggression only occurs in their presence indicating that their behavior plays a role in the initiation of the aggressive episodes.  When dealing with dominance problems it is important for the owners to understand that canines are pack animals and it is normal for them to develop social hierarchies within the pack.  Having everyone live as “equals” is not natural and by forcing this issue, the owners can create serious problems.  Although the canine hierarchy has been described as linear, in reality it is probably more flexible than a straight linear association.  That said, certain dogs in the household may command control or be “dominant” over other animals in relation to certain resources.  Identifying the pack order and helping the owners to reinforce this hierarchy can result in successful control of the aggression.  Letting dogs “fight it out” is dangerous and may result in serious injury or death to a beloved pet. 

In some cases, complete segregation of the dogs is necessary to prevent injury. The level of segregation will depend upon the severity of the specific case.  Barricades, basket muzzles and tie downs can all be helpful at managing dogs that have serious aggression issues. The dogs can then be introduced gradually in controlled situations.  It is important to instruct the owner how to break up a fight if one occurs.  Remote methods are advised as inadvertent injuries may occur to humans if they put their hands in the middle of a fight.  Some products that may help to break up a fight include canned fog horns, water, cardboard or plywood wedged between the two dogs or a blanket thrown over the dogs.  If nothing is available and the owner must separate dogs in a fight, pull apart the dogs from the rear quarters, not the collars.  Fights should result in social isolation of both dogs in separate locations.  The dominant dog should be released first from social isolation. 

In treatment it is important to identify triggers for the aggression and try to remove or minimize these triggers, if possible.   Then the clinician should identify the dominant dog using criteria such as age, size, sex, desire and posturing between the two dogs.  Usually the dog that is older or has been in that particular household longer is the more dominant dog.  However, if one dog is becoming elderly and debilitated, this may result in the age becoming a liability.  The larger of the two dogs is often the more dominant due to physical ability to win a fight.  However, it is not impossible to see a Miniature Poodle reining over a Great Dane.  Sexually intact animals are usually dominant over neutered animals.  It is interesting to note that fighting between two female dogs (intact or neutered) is often much more serious and injurious than fighting between two male dogs or male vs. female fights.  Another factor in determining dominance rank is the will or desire of the dog to be the pack leader.  Some dogs seem very motivated to lead while others have little to no interest.  Body posturing between the two dogs can give valuable cues that help you to identify the dominant dog.   Identifying signs of submission and dominance can help you to determine rank status.  Dominant body signals include a direct stare, a confidant stance and non-relinquishment of valuable resources.  Submissive body postures include averted gaze and avoidance.  In a confrontation between two dogs in a household, it is often the dominant dog that gives the first obvious signs of aggression (e.g. growl) toward the other dog. 

Once you have determined the rank status, have the owners show favoritism to dominant dog both in general interactions and regarding specific resources that trigger aggression.  For example, if the dogs have exhibited aggression when the owner is giving attention to the dogs, have the owner deliver attention to the dominant dog first.  If the subordinate dog comes over for attention during this time, it should be sent away by the owner. Coddling or encouragement of the subordinate dog will only worsen the situation.  Only after the dominant dog has gotten his fill of attention should the subordinate dog receive any attention.  If the dominant dog returns when the subordinate dog is receiving attention, the owner should cease petting the subordinate dog and return to petting the dominant dog. 

Most owners are aware of the rising tension between the dogs before an altercation.    Owners should be instructed to punish the subordinate dog when they identify this tension.  Punishment may just be a verbal reprimand or, if needed, a time out for the subordinate dog.  What the owners are actually punishing is the behavior of the subordinate dog that triggered the tension. Although the owners may not have witnessed the specific behavior, the subordinate dog did something to challenge the status of the dominant dog, necessitating a response from the dominant dog.    This scenario can be likened to two young siblings in the back seat of a car.  One child, often the younger child, will poke or pinch his/her older sibling.   The older sibling tolerates just so much before retaliating against the younger sibling.  The parents driving the car punish the older sibling, because they didn’t see or hear the taunting by the younger sibling.  The younger sibling then learns that in that situation he can get away with provoking the older sibling because he is “protected” by the parents.     

Another option is management of canine-canine aggression is to enforce a dictatorship within the family with the human being the leader.  The owners make all decisions about canine interactions.  This will only be successful with very dog savvy owners that have exceptional obedience control over their dogs. 

Canine-Feline Aggression

In most cases, aggression between a dog and a cat involves the canine as the aggressor and the feline as the victim.  The consequences of canine to feline aggression can be fatal. Many cases of canine/feline aggression involve predation.  Predation is an instinctual behavior in dogs and involves stalking, chasing, catching, biting, killing and eating. Vocalization is usually not a part of the predatory sequence.   Many domesticated dogs have abbreviated expressions of predatory behavior - e.g. will chase but not bite.  However some dogs have a strong predatory drive and can kill animals. In general, predatory aggression carries a poor prognosis and management of the dog so that it doesn’t have access to prey is necessary. For pet owners that are dedicated to working on a canine/feline issue, there are two management methods:  desensitization and counterconditioning or punishment.  Desensitization and counterconditioning are performed with the hope that the canine and feline will actually get to be comfortable with each other.  If punishment is used, it is done with the intention of having the dog consider the cat aversive and avoid all contact.  To desensitize a dog to a cat, the two pets would be kept segregated unless it was a supervised training session. Supervised introductions would be conducted daily. At these sessions the dog and cat would both be held (may use barricades, crates, leashes, etc) at a distance from each other where neither animal was particularly worried or aggressive. The cat would get a positive reinforcement such as petting, play or tasty food. The dog would be given obedience commands and rewarded with treats/praise for good, calm, obedient behavior.  It would be advisable to have the dog wear a head collar during these training sessions for added control and management.  Inappropriate behavior from the canine directed toward the feline would result in an immediate verbal reprimand followed by social isolation.  With successful sessions, the owners would decrease the distance separating the two animals until finally they could be next to each other without exhibiting signs of inappropriate behavior.  Caution would still be advised despite “successful” completion of these exercises.   If the punishment method is implemented, it is necessary to identify a remote punishment that is effective at inhibiting the unwanted behavior by the dog. Ideas may include a remote citronella collar, a remote shock collar, a squirt of water, etc.  The cat and dog would be allowed together although some level of protection for the cat is advised (basket muzzle for dog, dog tethered, cat crated, etc.).  Every time the dog showed any inappropriate behavior towards the cat, the punishment would be delivered.  Since many of these dogs first show an intense stare at the cat, that would be when the punishment was delivered.  If effective, the punishment would inhibit the unwanted behavior.  Eventually, the dog should learn to avoid any inappropriate behavior toward the cat.  Once again, caution would still be advised, despite successful completion of these exercises.  Other ideas to try to make the home safer for the cat include having the dog wear a bear bell on his/her collar.  There should be lots of high perches for the cat to escape to, if necessary.  Food, water and litterbox sites should be out of the dog’s reach. 


There is hope for feuding pet families, however as with most behavioral problems, it will require work and dedication on the part of the owners.  Sometimes placement of one of the pets in another home is the final outcome, but at least options can be explored before making this difficult decision.