Dr. Sophia Yin, DVM, MS
What do you do with a cat who attacks everything and everyone? Our cat lurks behind furniture and then leaps out at people as they walk by. She never seems serious because she doesn’t bite very hard, but it’s getting annoying.
Picture this: Through a deep silence, the young huntress surveyed her territory. The day was growing weary and she yearned for a break in the monotony. Then she heard it. A familiar thud in the distance. She froze. Crouched low. She couldn’t see it but she knew where to go. Pupils dilated with excitement, she oozed along the shadows until she reached her spot. Then she waited, patiently, ears slightly back, tail twitching like an itch ready to blow. A short jingle followed by a broad beam of light. That was her cue. A red shoe entered the room and like a dart the black ball of stealth launched her five-pound body.
“Yeow! Mommy! Missy bit me again!”
The fierce blur flew out of the room and melted back into the shadows where she could savor her success. Mission accomplished. The highlight of her day.
Sound like a vicious unprovoked attack on humans? Not quite. It’s just regular play behavior. Although cats have been domesticated for thousands of years, they still retain their desire to hunt. And to be a good at it, they need to practice, practice, practice. In the wild this involves pouncing on littermates, playing with captured rodents, and stalking hapless insects. In your home it means pouncing on you. Sure toys would be the logical choice, but they don’t move around and squeal the way humans do.
So how do you deal with your fearless, house-bound hunter? Do you send Missy outdoors to practice on the real thing? Unless you live on a secluded property overrun with rodents, this is not a good idea. Several things can go awry. First, instead of coming home with a furry, four-legged pest, Missy might return with the local avian Pavarotti. What’s the big deal? Nothing, unless you’re concerned about contributing to the possible demise of the local songbird population. If that’s not bad enough, be aware, Missy might not come home at all. While searching for a suitable victim, Missy might fall prey herself—to the big metal monster that stalks on four wheels.
Keep her occupied with more interesting play
No, for Missy, there’s a safer solution. Prevent the attack from occurring by keeping her occupied with safe play toys. These toys can be simple, like a brown paper sac, a ball made of scrunched paper, or a fortress of cardboard boxes. Or they can be more high tech like a motorized mouse or a feather on the end of a wand. Try different kinds of toys but don’t just put everything out at once. Use one to two toys a day and rotate them throughout the week. That way Missy won’t get bored. Better yet, take a 10-minute break and play with Missy yourself. Just be sure that you direct her play at a toy so that she gets the right idea.
Also consider a bird feeder placed in a location outside that she can see but that other cats can’t access. Some cats find this mesmerizing enough to satisfy their play needs.
What if you need to thwart an attack?
What do you do if Missy’s already developed a taste for human prey and you need to thwart an attack before or as it occurs? Here’s where it gets tough—pitting human against cat. Despite our larger brain size, this contest is no slam dunk. To come out on top, you have to be smarter and faster than your foxy feline. That means you have to anticipate her every move the way she’s been anticipating yours. Here’s the plan:
First, train her to perform more appropriate behaviors or cat tricks that are fun such as following you around and sitting for treats, coming when called, and playing the cat version of fetch by training her to touch a target with her nose. Then randomly play these games before she plans to attack. And if you see her starting to get into attack mode, break her out of it by calling her to come and play one of the more appropriate games. This trick training is especially important if diverting her attention with toys just puts her into a more aroused, predatory state.
Alternatively, if toy play works well to keep her engaged, the next time you come home, be prepared with a toy—one that Missy will find more enticing than a moving red shoe that squeals. This time when Missy hears the jingle of keys followed by the opening door, the next thing she should see is her new target. A feather dangling on a wand? Wiggle the toy while you stand completely still and Missy’s sure to take the bait. After playing with her or a minute or two you should be able to go about your regular routine.
What if she still likes your leg better?
Rule number one, when she hits her mark, don’t squeal or move. Both actions can trigger a stronger attack. Instead, hold perfectly still. The game’s no fun if the target doesn’t play back. Then, the next time, arm yourself with a glass of water or a pumped up water gun and surprise her just before she gets your leg. This alternative seems easy, but the timing is actually quite hard. But with a few well-timed showers and she’ll think twice before she attacks again. Of course, since she will still have the urge to stalk you, you’ll still have to redirect her play towards toys or towards games you have trained as in the last step.
A version of this article first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000.