Misdirected Feline Predatory Behaviour Towards People
Cats rarely show offensive aggression towards people, as their primary response to threat is escape. However, aggression during play is very common. In one study 39% of cats showed some level of owner-directed aggression, with the commonest situations leading to aggression being stroking and play, each occurring in around 40% of cases. Although often classified with other forms of aggression, predatory behaviour is functionally and mechanistically different to aggression. Cats are highly adapted to carry out a specific pattern of hunting behaviour. They have a small stomach which is evolved to cope with a large number of small fresh meals each day, rather than a single large one. One very common misconception amongst cat owners is that hunting is a behaviour which is performed in order to satisfy hunger. In fact, these two aspects of feline behaviour are independent of one another. A hungry cat will engage larger prey and deliver a kill bite more rapidly, but a well-fed cat will still continue to hunt. In one study cats were found to break off from eating a bowl of food to catch and kill a live rat that was nearby, before returning to the food bowl. Hunting responses are triggered by stimuli such as sudden movements or shrill noises.
As a result, a cat that is denied the opportunity to engage in hunting real prey or appropriate toys may display predatory behaviour toward other rapidly moving objects such as human feet and hands. Human shrieks and squeals increase the cat's arousal and intensify the behaviour. The behavioural sequences involved in predation are practiced and perfected through object play, so that in some texts the terms ‘misdirected play’ or ‘play-related aggression’ are used to describe a predatory form of behaviour that occurs in the absence of any genuine prey.
It is important to be aware that bite intensity is under control of local reflexes involving mechanoreceptors around the mouth; once the cat is biting, movement by the "prey" will cause an automatic increase in bite pressure that the cat is unable to fully control. Sudden movements can therefore result in unintentional severe bites.
Elderly people and children are particularly at risk from this sort of behaviour and injuries can be serious due to pathogenic bacterial infection after a bite or scratch.
It is important to collect a detailed history that includes information about the kind of play that owners engage in with their cats, and how they react when the cat bites or claws them. Often misdirected predatory behaviour begins with inappropriate play; owners using hands or feet to lure a kitten or young cat into play. For example, games that involve wiggling fingers or toes to encourage a playful predatory attack. As the kitten grows and bites and scratches become more powerful, owners then turn to punish the cat to prevent biting. This often leads to emotional conflict, fear and frustration, which further intensifies ambushing and biting. There is a progression to more serious ambushes in which the cat waits for the owner and then lunges at or attacks them. Frustration arises when the owner no longer playfully reciprocates the behaviour.
It is is also important to characterise every incident:
- The cat’s posture before, during and after an “attack”.
- The contexts in which the attacks typically occur.
- The triggers that appeared to initiate the predatory sequence (first sign of stalking the target).
- The stimuli or events that prompted the final attack.
In many cases of misdirected predatory behaviour the attack, or the preparatory stalking behaviour that preceded it, is being inadvertently rewarded by the human response. The cat gains attention, further play or finds the person's reaction stimulating or exhilarating.
Preventing misdirected predatory behaviour towards people:
- Owners must not play games that encourage cats to regard hands or feet as suitable targets for play.
- Provide kittens with a range of toys for object play: small, lightweight toys and larger objects.
- Change the selection of toys that are available several times each day to maintain a stimulating environment.
- Encourage play that involves fishing toys and other devices that focus play on a toy that is held away from hands or feet.
- Provide opportunities for simulated foraging (using activity feeders).
- If a cat playfully attacks a person they should remain still and provide minimal encouragement for the behaviour (no struggling, no sudden movements or noises).
All encouragement for misdirected predatory behaviour should cease; no more games should be started with hands or feet as a target. When pounced on, the victim should stop moving and make no sound. This removes any reinforcement for the behaviour and reduces the risk that struggling will trigger deeper biting or raking with claws. The attacks may be startling and painful so the client may need to wear heavy trousers and long sleeved clothes to protect them. This may include the use of reinforced clothing and shoes that will resist bites and scratches (such as reinforced jeans available from motorcycle stores). The need for protective clothing is not permanent, and can be phased out as the cat starts to use the environmental enrichment and alternative predatory targets. This objective is not only to protect the person, but also to reduce the reaction, and potential reinforcement, that the cat gets from an attack.
Environmental enrichment should be provided, including activity feeders, timed feeders and a wide range of small lightweight toys to encourage object play. Simple items such as ping-pong balls covered in glitter or painted with marker pens, and large feathers are perfectly suitable. The selection available to the cat should be changed regularly during the day so that there is always something new to attract the cat’s attention.
Owners should increase the frequency of play, especially at times when the cat is most likely to be active. This should involve toys that maintain the cat's attention away form the owner's hands and feet (such as fishing toys). Play can be further reinforced with attention (not touch) and food treats. Fishing toys and laser pointer games are appropriate since they distance the owner’s hand movements from the play. However caution should be exercised with laser pointers since an element of frustration can develop if the cat is never able to actually catch the “prey” and physically handle it. For this reason it is advised that laser pointers should never be the sole source of predatory play but should be integrated into a play programme with other toys that the cat can actually catch and “kill”. Play should also involve highly palatable food treats; using the fishing toy or laser pointer to lead the cat to a food treat in a manner that simulates a real hunting event.
Certain times of day are often peak periods for misdirected predatory behaviour. The cat is a crepuscular hunter so that its peak periods of activity will be early morning and evening. Very often cats show the most diverse range of activity in the morning, when feeding often occurs and the owner has been unavailable for several hours. The owner should try to provide several short periods of play during the times when it is anticipated that the cat will be at its most active.
Cats will often have favourite places from which to launch their predatory attacks, or stalking. Access to these may need to be blocked off; for example, moving a piece of furniture so that the cat cannot use it to launch an attack.
Indicators of a worse prognosis include:
- If the cat’s targets are children or vulnerable individuals.
- If serious injury has already been caused by the predatory attacks.
- If the cat exhibits high levels of frustration.
- An environment that provides little stimulation.
- Poor owner compliance.
If behavioural methods are effective, and owners are compliant, then an improvement ought to be seen within 4-6 weeks.
Sustained improvements are only seen if environmental enrichment and proper play continue to be provided, although often this strengthens the positive aspects of the cat-owner relationship.
- Ramos, D., Mills, D.S. (2009) Human directed aggression in Brazilian domestic cats: Owner reported prevalence, contexts and risk factors. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 11: 835-841.
- Adamec, R.E. (1976) The interaction of hunger and preying in domestic cat (Felis catus). Behavioural Biology. 18: 263-272.
This article has been written and expert reviewed by Jon Bowen BVetMed DipAS(CABC) MRCVS.
Date reviewed: August 28, 2014
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