Understanding Your Dog’s Prey Drive
& How to Keep Them Safe
Dogs with a strong natural instinct to chase, catch or kill small animals are at risk for injuries, diseases and trauma. Some hounds, terriers and working dogs are bred for their strong prey drive and owners need to protect them with good training, healthy diets and natural critter repellants.
Watching your dog chase a raccoon, possum, rat or skunk can be terrifying. You worry about your dog getting bitten, scratched or infected from disease. While many dogs can ignore other animals, certain breeds with a high prey drive will actively chase, catch and sometimes kill small animals. Some will even run across the road, jump into lakes or become lost during the “high” of a chase.
- Learn about prey drive
- Find out which breeds have a high prey drive
- Learn about the risks for injury, disease or trauma in dogs with a high prey drive
- Learn how to protect your dog
- Discover ways to reduce your dog’s anxiety and trauma after a stressful encounter
What is Prey Drive?
Prey drive is a natural instinct in dogs to chase and catch prey. The instinct originated from wolves and remains highly active in some dog breeds. Dogs’ keen sense of smell and ability to sense movement activates their instinct to chase, catch and even kill.
Pet owners get a glimpse of prey drive when their dog chases a bunny or squirrel out of the yard. This harmless behavior fulfills the hunting instinct in many dogs. But some dogs needs more.
What Activates a Dog’s Prey Drive?
Movement and smell are the biggest triggers to a dog’s prey drive. Small animals that move quickly or erratically can trigger a dog’s prey drive. Even the presence of another animal in a dog’s yard can launch his hunting instinct. Dogs can lose focus on everything around them as they chase the erratic movements of rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks, bees and snakes.
In addition to movement, the scent of an animal’s urine, feces or anal gland secretions can lead a hunting dog on a long and possibly dangerous trail.
The instinct to chase is so strong because it’s a biochemical addiction. Dogs with a high prey drive will have a hard time resisting the urge to hunt possums, skunks, porcupines, moles and mice because hunting releases “feel good” endorphins that are addicting and reinforcing.
Owners of breeds with a very high prey drive must channel their dog’s natural instincts through proper training and effective play. If not, dogs with a high prey drive can place themselves, household pets, small children and wild animals in danger.
What Dog Breeds Have a High Prey Drive?
Some breeds with a naturally high prey drive have been bred to make this instinct stronger and more useful to their human companions.
Popular breeds with a high prey drive include:
Hounds were bred to help humans hunt wild animals using their keen sense of smell, tenacity and bravery:
- Afghan Hound
- Bassett Hound
- Black and Tan Coonhound
- Irish Wolfhound
- Rhodesian Ridgeback
Terriers are some of the most tenacious hunters and were bred specifically to locate and dig up rodents and other small animals that burrow into the ground like foxes, moles, groundhogs, rabbits and prairie dogs:
- Brussels Griffon
- Jack Russell
- Rat Terrier
Questionable breeding practices led some terrier breeds to be mated with bulldogs in order to participate in dangerous blood sports like fighting and baiting bears and bulls. Although these can be loving, safe family dogs, additional training may be required to channel their fine-tuned instincts:
- American Pit Bull Terrier
- American Staffordshire Terrier
Although herding dogs have an incredibly strong instinct to chase, most were bred to round up cattle or sheep and nip at their legs to protect flocks by guiding them away from predators. They are not bred to kill small animals, but their high prey drive can cause stressful encounters and injury if not trained properly:
- Australian Cattle Dog
- Australian Shepherd
- German Shepherd
Some dogs evolved to have a high prey drive just to survive. Dogs in frigid or barren climates with minimal access to food sources had to learn to chase and kill in order to survive. Others were bred as guard dogs and encouraged to hunt and protect:
- Alaskan Malamute
- Doberman Pinscher
- Siberian Husky
Most sporting dogs assist hunters by pointing to prey (pointers), flushing out birds (spaniels) or gently retrieving downed fowl (retrievers). These breeds are less likely to chase and kill prey, but still have intense instinctual behaviors:
- Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
Just because they weigh less than 15 pounds doesn’t mean these dogs don’t come with a high prey drive. Although not bred specifically to hunt, some toy dogs like chihuahuas have a strong instinct to chase small birds, lizards, mice and snakes.
Dangers to High Prey Dogs: Disease, Injury & Stress
High-prey dogs are at risk for dangerous encounters that can lead to injury, stress or disease. Their instincts take over any form of self-control and we often see these dogs dive deep into lakes and thorny bushes or cross busy streets to chase prey. Once cornered or attacked, defensive prey animals can bite and scratch a dog, leading to blood loss, infection and disease. In addition, encounters can be stressful and traumatizing.
What Diseases Can Dogs with High Prey Drive Get?
Wild animals can carry bacteria and parasites in their body fluids that can occasionally lead to canine diseases like leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, coccidiosis, Chagas Disease, fleas and rabies.
Most healthy adult dogs don’t become seriously ill from exposure to a prey’s body fluids, but puppies and sick dogs can be at increased risk.
Check with your vet about what diseases are prevalent among small wild animals in your local area. Some examples include:
Leptospira bacteria can be found in the urine of infected animals or contaminated soil and water and lead to bleeding, jaundice or kidney failure. Early treatment is important. Vaccination can prevent infection.
Cats, birds and poultry can carry the toxoplasma gondii parasite which can be serious for puppies or immunocompromised dogs. Healthy dogs with robust immune systems typically don’t show symptoms (like weakness, lethargy, vomiting).
Tip: Pregnant women should avoid exposure to cat urine, which commonly carries the toxoplasma parasite.
Cats, rabbits, rodents and opossums can carry this diarrhea-causing parasite in their feces. Healthy dogs are mildly affected, while puppies and sick dogs can experience more serious effects.
Large insects, opossums and armadillos can carry the parasite that may lead to Chagas Disease in dogs.
Infected dogs can show subtle signs like lethargy, pale gums and decreased appetite. In serious cases, this parasite can cause inflammation in the heart, arrhythmias and sudden death.
Small animals like mice, squirrels, chipmunks and opossums can carry ticks that may have bacteria that could lead to Lyme disease.
The good news is that small animals that groom themselves well (like opossums) ingest 95% of the ticks on their bodies and actually help to reduce tick-borne diseases like Lyme.
In the rare case your dog gets bitten by an infected tick riding on a prey animal, rest assured that only 5% of infected dogs go on to develop Lyme disease.
Raccoons, skunks, bats, cats and foxes are the more common carriers of rabies. Rabies is very rarely found in cold-blooded mammals like opossums (North American possums). Since most dogs are vaccinated against rabies, the risk for contracting rabies from wildlife is low.
Rabbits, rats, mice, opossums, skunks and raccoons often host fleas which can jump to your dog. Fleas can cause your dog intense itching, skin breakdown and infection from allergic dermatitis. In some cases, ingesting flea eggs can lead to tapeworm. More serious flea-related diseases include bacterial bartonellosis (coughing, diarrhea, eye and nose irritation, lameness), and anemia (low red blood cells).
After a close interaction with a wild animal, check your dog for fleas and use natural flea and tick solutions when needed.
After a wildlife encounter, monitor your dog for injuries, bleeding, bites, scratching, vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, decreased appetite or weakness and contact your vet.
What Injuries Can Dogs with a High Prey Drive Get?
Emergency veterinarians see a variety of injuries related to hunting, chasing and high prey drive behaviors such as:
- dental injury
- uncontrolled bleeding
- nerve injury
- skunk spray to eyes
- porcupine quills
- poisoning (from biting or eating poisoned animals or venomous snake bites)
Some minor injuries can heal on their own in a healthy dog, but your vet should be contacted with serious injuries, symptoms or any time you are concerned. Puppies and sick or older dogs are more vulnerable to disease.
How to Deal with Stress and Trauma in Dogs with High Prey Drive
A tense interaction between your dog and a prey animal can cause a great deal of stress.
Some dogs take those interactions in stride, while others – like rescue dogs and those with a trauma history – can experience high anxiety and display behavioral issues.
If your dog has encountered another animal, monitor him for signs of stress:
- barking or vocalizing excessively
- withdrawal or hiding
- poor appetite
- chewing, licking or excessive yawning
- fear aggression
How to Calm a Stressed Dog
If your dog is stressed from a tense interaction:
- Sit quietly with your dog until he relaxes and shows no more signs of stress. Many pet owners use massage, Reiki, music, essential oils or crystals to reduce their dog’s anxiety.
- Calm your dog’s stress hormones. Make some homemade treats with stress-reducing herbs like lavender, chamomile or cannabidiol (CBD). Our favorite recipes for anxious dogs are La La Lavender Biscuits and CBD Dog Treats. Stressed dogs also benefit from soothing cooled chamomile tea.
- If your dog has a history of trauma (like a rescue dog) address the trauma with these helpful tips.
How to Support Dogs with a High Prey Drive
Correct training and abundant exercise are the best ways to support dogs with a high prey drive. Here are other tips to channel your dog’s hunting instincts and keep him safe:
- Supervise your dog when outdoors especially around sunset, when critters begin to scavenge for food
- Supervise dogs around young children or other pets that may move suddenly or erratically, triggering a dog’s prey drive
- Keep yards fenced (a solid fence dug one foot below ground is the most effective barrier against burrowing animals)
- Keep yards free of garbage, food and fallen fruit that can attract scavengers
- Plant plants and herbs that can repel animals like possums and skunks (mint, geranium, chrysanthemums)
- Keep grass cut short
- Fence off wood piles to discourage animals that like to hide e.g. snakes
- Install motion-activated lights or motion-activated water sprayers to repel skunks, raccoons and other critters
- Keep dogs’ immune systems healthy with a whole foods diet (like raw meat, vegetables and healthy oils). If a dog is exposed to bacteria, viruses or parasites from an infected wild animal, healthy dogs are less likely to experience ill effects
It is a myth that feeding a raw food diet encourages the taste for blood. Raw or partially cooked meat maintains a healthy pH, optimizes a dog’s digestive enzymes and strengthens immunity against common bacteria, viruses and parasites they may encounter when hunting.
- Ensure your dog has a Holistic Vet to support optimal health and disease prevention, and a Conventional Vet for emergencies
- Train your dog to recall (“come” when called) and “leave it”(ignore distractions)
- Consider a GPS collar for dogs that are off-leash and easily distracted by hunting prey (subscription required)
- Provide your dog with activities to channel his prey drive safely such as playing chase, fetch, tug of war and flirt poles.
- Reward your dog with praise, treats or favorite toys when he avoids chasing, lunging or barking at prey
- Use a well-fitting harness during walks that you can hold securely without damaging your dog’s throat
Tip: If you let your high-prey dog off leash in an area with skilled hunters like coyotes or hawks, a spiked dog vest can save a dog’s life.
What dog breeds have a low prey drive?
Malteses, French Bulldogs, Papillons, Cavlier King Charles Spaniels, Great Pyranees, Bichon Frises and Golden Retrievers are among those peace-loving breeds that would prefer to cuddle than hunt.
Be kind to all living beings. Respect the earth we share.