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Behaviour focus: My cat suddenly attacks me

In this week’s behaviour focus post, Cats Protection Behaviour Manager Nicky Trevorrow explains why cats appear to suddenly attack – and why we need to consider the cat's point of view to understand.

Sometimes when I fuss my cat they seem to be enjoying it then suddenly attack me! Why? 

Many people experience this with their cats and find it very confusing or upsetting as the cat appears to have asked for a fuss, only to then find that the cat shows ‘random’ aggressive behaviour. Cats don’t behave randomly or do things out of the blue, even if we can’t see a logical explanation. We need to look at things from the cat’s perspective, which can be very different from our own.

Ginger and white cat being stroked outside

Photo by Adam Heath via flickr / Creative Commons

To be stroked by a human is not a natural behaviour for a cat to accept (they learn interactions with people during the kitten socialisation period) and some cats are more naturally reactive than others. This can also be directly related to the amount of human interaction the cat has had during the key sensitive period of two to seven weeks of age. The more positive interaction carried out during this time, the more likely the kitten will be well adjusted to everyday life and human interactions.

Your cat may need to be able to feel more secure with physical attention. Sit quietly with them when you won't be interrupted and keep very calm. Keep interactions very short and stop before the cat reacts. Some cats don’t appreciate long cuddles and lots of stroking, and would prefer to spend time playing and running around so games and play are a better way of spending time with these kinds of cats than cuddles. Try not to provoke a reaction – stop stroking when you notice twitching or backwards-facing ears, dilated pupils or sudden tensing. Reward the cat with a tiny titbit and praise for behaving in a relaxed way and then leave them alone. Never punish the cat, including verbal and physical punishment – this will only encourage further aggressive behaviour, especially if the cat has an underlying anxiety.

Tabby cat having their head rubbed

Photo by Michael Broad via flickr / Creative Commons

Sensitive areas of a cat

As with any behavioural change, it is crucial to rule out medical problems, especially pain, as that can cause a cat to attack. Remember that cats are the masters of disguise when they are in pain so it can be really tricky to tell. If your vet says your cat doesn’t have any medical reasons that would cause him or her to be aggressive while being picked up or stroked, then here are a few behavioural tips with interacting with cats.

Cats can get quite stimulated or excited when they are playing or in ‘hunting mode’, and it is generally not advisable to touch any cat in this state.

Even when touching a calm, relaxed cat, there are many places on the body that are quite vulnerable or sensitive and as a general rule, many cats don’t like to be touched in these places and might lash out. The vulnerable or sensitive areas include:

  1. Belly (which for some cats can include their sides and chest too)
  2. Paws
  3. Under legs (ie armpits)
  4. Legs (‘trousers’ or back legs)
  5. Stroking the fur against the normal direction
  6. Bottom half of back (particularly if stiff or painful)
  7. Base of tail (cats are divided on this area though!)
  8. Genital area

Does your cat really want to be stroked?

All cats are individuals so some cats may seem to tolerate or in some cases, even appear to like be touched in some of these areas. However, as a general rule, cats don’t tend to be like being touched in these areas.

It is a common misconception that cats that roll on to their backs and expose their belly want it to be touched. This behaviour is often seen after a period of separation and is used as a greeting. When cats do this they are communicating that they feel relaxed in the person’s presence, enough to expose such a vulnerable area. The best way to address this behaviour is to verbally acknowledge the cat’s greeting, which is all the cat needs.

For a cat that is resting on the floor with their belly exposed, if someone really wanted to stroke the cat, I would recommend only stroking the head, or if you know the cat well, you may be able to stroke their neck and back too.

In general cats like quite brief, low-intensity interactions that are quite frequent. When cats greet each other in the same social group, it tends to be a brief head rub. Unfortunately, humans are the opposite! Our interactions are generally less frequent, but high intensity and prolonged. This is often another source of confusion.

In this video, I talk a bit more about this:

What to do if your cat scratches you

If the cat has bitten or scratched anyone, where the bite or scratch breaks the skin or causes bleeding, then medical advice should be sought without delay. A course of antibiotics may be required. It is important to immediately clean the site whether the skin has been broken or not:

Even if the skin is unbroken, if the person experiences fever or headaches, together with localised swelling, redness, and pain soon after the bite, then medical advice should be sought urgently.

What is cat scratch disease?

Cat scratch disease is caused by bacteria of the genus Bartonella. There are 24 Bartonella species, 14 of which can infect humans and five of which are harboured by cats. The five Bartonella species harboured by cats are spread by fleas. Cats transmit the bacteria when they are carrying infected fleas, scratch themselves, and get infected flea dirt in their claws. They may then scratch a person or another cat with their dirty claws, causing an infection. It is rare for people to be infected in this way, and when they are it is usually fairly mild, eventually going away without any treatment although it can take a number of months.

The symptoms of cat scratch disease are:

If the infected person is immunosuppressed (in other words, they are very old, very young, or have a chronic illness), one of several far more serious syndromes can result. The infection goes deeper into the body and causes spleen enlargement, and potentially encephalitis, heart valve infection, and other conditions. These syndromes are rare, but they are potentially quite serious.

If you have been bitten or scratched by your cat and suspect you may have cat scratch disease, the best thing to do is to speak to your doctor.

 How can I prevent cat scratch disease?

Fleas or ticks are needed to spread the infection. If they are removed from the infected cat, there will be no flea dirt in the coat and no risk of disease transmission. Therefore, the best form of prevention for cat scratch disease is strict flea and tick control.

 Other preventative measures include:

If you are experiencing a behavioural problem with your cat, then firstly get your cat health checked by your vet and then get a referral to a qualified behaviourist such as the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors.

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