Why Do Pet Cats Attack Their Owners?
The danger of pet cats?
Cats are one of the most popular pets in the world and are savagely beloved by millions, although the dangers present from their razor sharp claws and teeth, such as serious infection, are largely not taken seriously. But how much of a threat do they really pose to human health? Have domesticated cats ever killed a person?
In this article...
- Can cats cause human fatalities or severe injury?
- Overlooked dangers of pet and feral cats
- Why might a cat become aggressive?
- A list of reported cat attacks and aggression, plus video
Cats are too small to kill a human by force with the exception of human babies, although there are no reported cat-related deaths involving infants in recent U.S. history. Domesticated cats are also the subjects of various folklore, including the old wives tale that they can suck the breath from an infant, which might lead some people to believe that they are dangerous with small children.
However, cats typically have little incentive to attack a helpless child. They are predators of small animals like mice and birds, and have territorial tendencies directed towards competing animals and predators, therefore babies are relatively safe. The recipients of reported cat attacks have largely been adults, although aggression toward infants has occurred. You won't find statistics about cat bite incidences like you will dogs and exotic pets, because people don't really care.
Are all cats dangerous?
It is important for anyone who wants to understand animals and their behavior to place things in the proper perspective. Cats are domesticated, but this term is useless when discussing propensity of aggression, whether or not a pet is capable of attacking, and basically anything else meaningful.
The fact that cats are domesticated and widely kept as pets often misleads people into thinking they do not have the instincts associated with so-called wild animals. All cats are products of their environment, and if a cat is not socialized with humans, it will become just as 'wild' as what they've descended from (and, vice versa, many wild cats can be tamed when human-socialized, although to different extents).
- Understanding Domestication: The Ethics of Wild Animals as Pets and in Zoos
Are domesticated animals really that different from exotic animals?
Most domesticated cats (and dogs), when socialized, will never severely bite or attack humans as long as they aren’t ‘provoked’. However, this comforting fact does not determine whether or not your pet might end up unexpectedly acting aggressive one day as animals, not being robots, are subject to the same shifts in mood that result from various factors that may be hormonal, stress-related, or a response to an environmental change.
It is all too common for petowners to say "he's never done this before" when they experience a bite from their pet. At any point, in any situation, there can be a first time for anything.
It is often the case that people view animals like tigers and jaguars as dangerous because they are 'wild'. It is very important to consider that domestication has little to do with why a cat has never killed a person. Size is by far the most important factor that causes such incidences. If domesticated cats had the same size and musculature as lions and tigers, they would be extremely dangerous pets. This, and only this is what makes tigers dangerous—most tame big cats won't attack their owners for most of their life, but there are those one or two fatal 'exceptions' that can occur at any time.
So, repeat the following mantra if you really want to understand animals: domesticated is meaningless, domestication is meaningless.
How common are cat attacks?
While most people find it shocking and amusing when a surprisingly severe cat attack is caught on video, such incidences probably occur more often than people realize.This is how domesticated pets can end up being more of a threat to public because people don't expect it of them. Dogs and cats do emit behavioral signs of impending aggression that are often missed or not taken seriously by their caretakers. Aggression is indeed common but not as common as aggression that results in severe injury.
Cause of cat aggression and attacks
- Redirected Aggression: Lashes out at owner after sensing something it can't access. May seem like it occurs for no reason because source of agitation isn't present.
- Petting-induced Aggression: When petting causes over stimulation or discomfort, cats may bite their owners (signs of agitation include tail swatting, skin twitching, meowing, or changing body position).
- Fear: The root of most cat aggression
- Territorial: Natural aggression all cats are prone to, and can occur with other cats, animals, and humans.
- Maternal Aggression: The insecurity of a female cat with kittens.
- Pain-induced: Retaliation if an owner touches the cat in a painful area.
- Unprovoked Aggression: When a cat is aggressive for seemingly no reason. Rare, and hard to diagnose. Often mistaken for redirected aggression.
Signs of cat aggression
Many pet owners fail to become attuned with their pets mannerisms that may hint that an animal is becoming irritated. Here is a list of the more subtle signs of aggression and agitation in domesticated cats.
Defensive (submissive) posture
- Ears pointed back, flattened
- Dilated pupils
- Piloerection (fur stands up)
- Tail curved and tucked inward
- Turning sidways to opponent, not looking straight on
- Open mouth, hissing and spitting.
Defensive (fearful) aggressive posture
Offensive aggression (LOOK OUT)
A posture that indicates offensive aggression may result in an attack. Never attempt to console or calm a cat that is showing these signs.
- Faces the opponent (instead of slinks or leans in the opposite direction)
- Direct stare, steps forward
- Tail points straight down (as opposed to curved downward)
- Ears are pointed upright with the back rotated slightly forward
- Piloerection (fur stands up)
*Some of these signs are present in defensive aggression. The most obvious distinguishable signs include the ears, vocalizations, and movement of the cat (is it backing away or inching forward?)
*Rabies, a lethal disease in cats, can result in irrational behavior. Such animals suspected of showing symptoms should be euthanized immediately.
Take cat bites seriously
Cat attacks are no laughing matter, and aside from the frequently reported agony that they cause to the victims, cat bites are heavily prone to infection, even more so than dog bites. The reason this is so is due to the sharpness of cat teeth creating deep puncture wounds into areas that are sufficient for bacterial activity and hard to clean.
A study determined that 1/3 of patients who sought treatment for cat bites in a three year period had to be hospitalized, and 2/3 of these patients ended up needing surgery to flush out the bacteria via debridement. If a cat bite occurs over a joint or tendon along with swelling, redness, and pain, this increases the chances that a hospital visit might be needed.
Bites by unfamiliar cats with access to the outdoors is a substantial rabies risk. While cases of humans contracting rabies are rare, cats are the pet most frequently found with the virus in the United States.
- Cat bites to the hand can cause serious infections, Mayo study finds | MinnPost
Cat bites should be taken seriously, for they can lead to difficult-to-treat bacterial infections — in fact, much more so than dog bites — according to a new study by researchers at the Mayo Clinic.
Cats are derived from wild ancestors (the African wild cat) that are both predator and prey, so they possess a complex array of defensive behavior. However, despite our much greater size, cats often see humans as equals when they are raised around us, and therefore their territorial nature can be taken out on us just as fights occur between two cats.
Cats are equipped with bluffing abilities. In the wild, animals try to avoid physical encounters because wounds can often be fatal (there are no veterinarians in nature). Cats will often stare down their opponent and assess them for hesitancy in attacking. This could trigger a cat to attack if it becomes aware that the opponent isn't confident (watch how these powerful lions are scared away by intimidating tribesman). Because cats are domesticated (not selected by nature) and many live with or close to humans, many individuals may be less afraid to approach and show offensive aggression to humans and dogs. Healthy wild animals generally fear humans and do not attack unless humans stumble on their territory or their babies are nearby.
Some Cat Attack Incidences and Footage
Now that we understand what provokes cat attacks and what body postures indicate aggression, let's look at a few recorded incidences of felines fighting. The animals in the videos are a mix of pets, feral street cats, stray cats (once owned) and a combination of both (some feral and stray cats are cared for outdoors).
Attacks on pets
Cat attacks Rottweiler
Animals attacking non-human animals is a far more common occurrence, and of course, this is an easy way for a human to get mixed up in the scuffle when they try to defend their pet. At the right is one such example, possibly a territorial dispute with a pet dog results in a street cat attacking.
Cat attacks small dog
Here is another example of a cat attacking a dog, and just like the previous video, the animal is ignoring the humans, even when they retaliate against it. The cat leaping into the air resembles the cat-human attack in the snow that will be shown below.
Another small dog attack...
Again, a cat seems to be having a territorial dispute with a dog. The status of the cat (stray, feral, owned) is unknown.
While the headline of the video says 'unbelievable', we know it isn't.
This widely televised cat 'attack' that had a very positive result is a good example of cat territorial behavior. Many cats will rub against their owner to mark their 'territory' (much of the cuddling behavior pet owners experience), and many may see small children they live with as 'property'. In this case, a cat launched itself at a dog that trespassed on its property and 'its boy'. While many were surprised a cat could be brave enough to confront a large dog, the other videos in this article reveal that it is not an unheard of occurrence. A similar attack with a negative result will be seen below.
Black cat attack
These cats appear to be feral, possibly being fed by humans, which I'm guessing by the presence of numerous animals around a group of people.
In the video, people also appear to get caught in the scuffle. The humans fail to notice the somewhat obvious offensive aggressive posture.
Attacks on people
Attack in the snow in Michigan
This recording of a woman from Melvin, Michigan being attacked by a cat is perhaps one of the most famous cat attack videos circulating the internet because it shows just how agile and deliberate cats can be, even with opponents 10x their size. The woman, identifying herself as Maxx, was attempting to shoo away the animal that she had been caring for in an attempt to defend her mother's dog when the animal leapt up and latched on her face. The incident was recorded on her security camera. This attack appears to be a good example of displaced aggression, as the animal was attempting to attack a dog (like in the previous videos) but the owner intervened.
*Despite the fact that Maxx saved the cat, and despite the fact that the cat was known to be aggressive and had attacked 2 other people before, the video brought out the profound irrationality of many 'cat lovers' who found snow kicking to be 'cruelty' and that Maxx 'deserved' to be brutally harmed by the animal (her face also became infected). This reveals the mentality of many cat owners, which I will be discussing in a future article.
Cat attacks woman in Greenville: This is a similar story to what happened to Maxx, and it also provoked similar nonsensical criticism. A woman, attempting to shoo a cat off her property that was showing aggression to her own cat was severely attacked by it (this was not caught on video). Pet owners are probably far more likely to be in a confrontation with free-roaming cats, as the animals might get into aggressive disputes with their pets when the owners get in their way.
Cat attacks babysitter
I cannot find any credible information verifying the events of this video, so watch with the understanding that the editing and text in it can be misleading (assuming the footage is real). A cat appears to attack a babysitter, presumably after hearing glass shatter (as the video editing seems to suggest). The cat is likely showing territoriality just as the 'hero cat' shown previously, this time undesirable.
Pet cat sends 3 to the hospital
Although there's no footage of the actual incident, this is another case that shows that pet cat aggression should be taken seriously. A 1 year old cat clawed its family of 3 (again, leaping toward the face, showing cats instinctively know where to aim to harm their opponents), causing deep gashes and a call to the fire department. The cat was described as never having been aggressive before, so it's difficult to determine why this occurred.
Cat holds family hostage?
Something prompted a 22 pound Himalayan cat to attack its family's 7 month old child, and after a kick from the child's father, the large feline proceeded to charge the family (including a dog), leaving them stranded in a bedroom. They even had to call 911, and police arrived to subdue the pet. The family is surprisingly attempting to keep the animal and are getting it therapy.
Here's another very similar situation and another one (Cuppy the cat) in Florida in the same year. Are these cats really 'going crazy'? Or is there a misunderstanding of symptoms prior to the incident?
Regardless, cats are very lucky to be considered 'domesticated', or there would be a Federal ban on them immediately enacted.
- Cat attack sends woman to hospital - WALB.com, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports
A Thomas county woman is in the hospital after she was attacked by a stray cat.
© 2014 Melissa A Smith
More by this Author
Profiles of the small and medium-sized exotic or wild cats that are sometimes kept as pets in the United States.
Addressing the science and culture involving cat domestication and wild animals.
A summary of exotic pet laws and discussion on which states prohibit the private possession of specific exotic animal species, including monkeys, tigers, raccoons, birds, wolves, and others.