January 31, 2023

Why does my cat attack me?

Q My young indoor cat, Marla, will let me stroke her but when she becomes fed up with attention she strikes with her claws out and tries to bite my hand. She also attacks my feet! I shout ‘no’ at her and often she will let go, but not always.

I keep my feet still when I think she is about to attack and while she is attacking, as movement seems to increase her desire to attack once she has started. How can I help her overcome this behaviour? Marla is a normal cat in every other way, but she just loves to play.

Behaviourist Francesca Riccomini says: It seems likely that this poor little cat has not been handled well, may have been frightened, and has probably developed a lot of motivational confl ict about being around people.

Consequently, when she is around people Marla may quite enjoy attention but will quickly become aroused and use aggression to create space between her and the person.

Confinement is likely to increase her arousal, so make her life as interesting as possible – keeping your behaviour as predictable and non-threatening as you can. Doing nothing to reinforce the unacceptable behaviour should allow you to rehabilitate this deserving cat.

Work out the times of day and/or circumstances in which she bites feet and try to make sure she has something interesting to do just ahead of time or in situations where she might bite. Give her cardboard boxes with dry food or toys inside, paper carrier bags (without handles) to investigate and sit inside, and scatter her dry food to make her forage, so although she is confined she can have fun and shouldn’t get too frustrated – a motivational state which is likely to increase the unacceptable behaviour.

Wear thick trousers and boots so that you can ignore Marla completely if she attacks, although it’s best to try to divert her attention into something productive beforehand. Never shout at her, avoid eye contact, as that is threatening to cats, and keep completely silent and quite still if she behaves this way. Wait until she has relaxed and then very slowly move on, continuing to ignore her.

Your hand movement is a stimulus so keep your stroking sessions short so you stop before she becomes aroused and strikes – you should be able to spot the signs. You need to be entirely consistent as intermittently slipping up will make things worse. If you are sensitive and well organised, this should work.