My cat's been biting humans out of the blue
April 20, 2015 11:57 PM   Subscribe

We adopted a cat a couple of months ago. He's about five, and in good health according to the vet. (He was surrendered to a local SPCA for financial reasons.) Starting about a month ago, he's started biting people. He'll get very close, his eyes will dilate, he'll extend his neck toward an arm or leg and he'll often let out a relatively long, complaining meow and then chomp down on the limb. It's scaring the shit out of me and my wife.

(He has food and water, is fed on a very strict schedule, and his litterbox is quite clean.)

The biting happens almost exclusively at night. It isn't coming while we're petting him - this isn't a classic "cat decides petting-time is over" kind of thing. It doesn't feel reactive to anything we've done; it's much slower and more deliberate and feels almost announced. The bites are usually on the arm, but not exclusively.

I'd assumed it was a demand for attention, but I'm not sure what kind he'd even want: one time I "dodged" the bite and tried to pet him, and he attacked even more forcefully; I've also tried to redirect him toward a favorite toy for playtime, which he completely ignored.

It's scaring the shit out of me, and my wife, and we're at a loss. We're taking him to the vet soon but we're getting pretty desperate to know what's going on, especially since there's no way to isolate a scary cat from us at night - we live in an open-floor plan apartment with no internal walls, and only one bathroom. It's her first cat, but I've lived with many others, and I've never experienced anything like this. Five days of the week I come home from work and play and cuddle a friendly, adorable kitty, and the other two days I get bit on the arm for no discernable reason.

What's going on? Why is my big fluffy lovebug randomly chomping down on my arm?
posted by anonymous to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Cats are weird.

Did anything change in the schedule or routine about a month ago? New cat food, new laundry detergent, new air freshener?

I would try a feliway diffuser and vet visit asap. Cats suck at communication and maybe cat has a bad tooth, uti, or is just needing kitty prozac.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:11 AM on April 21, 2015

I should also mention that this cat just might be a psycho kitty. Had a friend growing up and when were 10 or so her mom adopted a cat...every single time I entered their house that cat attacked my ankles. I left that house bleeding all the damn time. They tried lots of things. I had always been around cats growing up so didn't really think badly of the cat.

Chance this cat may not be a good first cat for your wife. I will go on to say that kitty prozac can work wonders...sometimes a short course is all it takes.
posted by fluffy battle kitten at 12:16 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

You should definitely talk to your vet, but -

especially since there's no way to isolate a scary cat from us at night - we live in an open-floor plan apartment with no internal walls

Many people use dog carriers when they need to confine their cat. You can fit cat, litter pan, and water in comfortably. It's a temporary solution but there are ways to isolate a cat even in an open floor plan apartment.

I have a soft folding one that I use when I'm traveling with my cats in my car. I can put it away when I don't need it, and it's cushy inside for them. (Not that this makes them any happier to be in the car.)
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:33 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Your taking your cat to the vet to see if anything's wrong or to find out medication options is still a great idea but I wanted to let you know how to keep from being bitten when your cat gives you a heads up that he's about to be aggressive.

I don't remember where I read about this but mother cats hold their kittens by the scruff of the neck until they quit moving when the kittens get bitey/rough. A person can scruff a cat by grabbing the loose skin at the back of the neck until the cat quits moving. Don't hold them in the air like a momma cat. A grown cat weighs too much for that to be safe.

This helped train my sister's cat out of biting when he got too rough. He'd be fine and playful, than suddenly grab your arm and bite the hell out of you. I'd hold him by the back of the neck until he calmed down and told him he needed to get up and leave whenever he was over playing (Ya, I'm one of those people who think cats can understand English but pretend not to). It's made a world of difference. It lets the cat know he's gotten too rough but doesn't hurt him. He rarely bites now and will instead, jump down and walk away.
posted by stray thoughts at 1:52 AM on April 21, 2015 [14 favorites]

nthing stray thoughts' suggestion of scruffing him when he warns you he's going to get bitey. Be aware, though, that this doesn't necessarily mean he's going to calm down. I've known of cats that, when scruffed whilst stressed, completely fritz out, twist around, and try to attack the scruffer. So YMMV, because cats, but it's worth a try nontheless.
posted by gmb at 3:01 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

1) Other cat problems? There are several unpredictably aggressive cats dealt with on Jackson Galaxy's program who were responding to other cats wandering into their yards, visible outside their windows. It made them absolutely insane with fear and anger, and the owners hardly ever saw the other cats so they didn't realize there was even a correlation. The cats responded to a non-medical solution: keeping other cats out of their visible territory. This was done by covering the bottoms of windows, installing motion-triggered sprinklers outside windows (to deter other cats), deploying Feliway or other calming pheromones, and maybe other measures. The results were remarkable. I don't know if it's even possible that your cat is having this kind of problem, but it's something to consider.

2) Squeak - Kittens learn to curb aggressive play by interacting with other kittens. If one plays to rough with his friend, the friend will squeak in a particular way which causes the aggressor to instantly stop pursuit. If your cat grew up without other kittens to socialize him, or if he's just losing track, it might help to try this reaction. I have personally tried this myself - it's really an embarrassing thing to do in front of other people, but the high-pitched squeak _works_ on cats that play too roughly because they don't know any better.

3) 20 pounces or crazy - Is he getting a little wilder from being alone all day? If you have a vacation coming up during which you'll be able to be at home, see if this calms him.

Otherwise, I'd try making sure the cat is playing by chasing something every night (I read a study once titled something like "Twenty pounces or crazy" - the number was arrived at in the research); and making sure the cat isn't in a boring silent place alone all day (in other words, setting up a bird feeder, playing the radio, etc. if you both are gone for working hours).

4) Permanent playmate - Do you know if he'd be OK with another cat? Obviously you wouldn't want him to attack and injure another cat, but if (and I realize it's a big if) the problem were boredom and isolation, then another cat could be a help -- and two cats really isn't that much more of a challenge than one.

5) Pheromones are amazing - You might consider deploying a Feliway diffuser in any case. It's the easiest solution in this list.
posted by amtho at 4:06 AM on April 21, 2015 [9 favorites]

We had a lovely calico that would sometimes be "set off" by random things - smells, noises, etc, and would then attack people. (she actually cornered my grandparents in a bedroom once, when they were taking care of her. We called her attack kitty.) My dad generally socialized her and just became used to her warning signs, but he also had rooms with doors to separate them.

One of the things that would do it was mint related things - gum, breathmints - could toothpaste be triggering your kitty? Or a new lotion/scent of some kind?
posted by needlegrrl at 5:02 AM on April 21, 2015

My parents' cat used to get agitated every evening because she could see her own reflection in the glass of the window and thought it was another cat. Black eyes, bottlebrush tail, the works. They had to get really thorough about closing all the blinds when it got dark. She's now a bit less hair-trigger - I suppose this is a combination of her getting older and calmer and gradually learning that the other cat doesn't seem very interested in coming into the room to attack her. I mention this because:
- You should consider whether there are any low-down windows allowing Cat to see his reflection.
- You should consider whether it's some other weird cat thing that would never occur to a human, like the toothpaste needlegrrl mentioned.
posted by Acheman at 5:03 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hey anon!

Sorry to hear puss has been chewing people.

Cats retain a lot of instincts that are useful in the wild - biting is one of them! My suggestion is that you get into a little play-time routine when you or your partner get home from work. A piece of string with a button tied to the end makes a fun hunting game, especially if you use your imagination and drag it under furniture, rugs etc.

Try a play routing and see if it makes a difference.

Good luck!

posted by DZ-015 at 5:45 AM on April 21, 2015

Definitly try feliway/comfortzone. They sell these wall plugs that gradually release cat pheremone into the air. It doesn't work for every cat, but when it does work, it makes any number of upsetting behaviors go away.

Also try rubbing your socks on the cheek glands of the cat before wearing them. Although it shouldn't be happening since you live with the cat, it's possible that you smell 'wrong' to it.

Lastly, as recommended a few times above, make sure your cat isn't bored. Some cats need more activity than others. My cat needs play time a few times a day or she begins acting out.
posted by tofu_crouton at 5:54 AM on April 21, 2015

Yeah squeak. We taught our cat not to bite by squealing OWOWOWOW, and it helped really well. It's like a human version of the sound that cats make when you step on their tail by accident.
posted by Namlit at 6:21 AM on April 21, 2015

"....we live in an open-floor plan apartment with no internal walls...."

From a cat's point of view, this type of space is their worst nightmare and very stressful. Cats are burrowers and nesters, and they need plenty of safe places to retreat to, both low and high, does your cat have that? If not, that would be the first place I would start. Not just one place, but several. Then I would move onto working on decreasing the cat's energy level. Is this cat an indoor only cat now? Was it indoor/outdoor before, perhaps? Adapting from an an indoor/outdoor situation can be very challenging for a cat who has been used to releasing a lot of energy exercising, exploring and being stimulated independently out of doors. And cats can get bored with toys, and need quite a bit of novelty.

Our tabby, who is almost always the most sweet, mellow cat you have ever met, will go into the 'I think you are prey' mode (just as you describe, eyes dilated, ready to bite) a few times a year. She has tons of stimulation/attention and a hyper cat-friendly environment, even then, it is just a feature of cats. So your realistic goal is to reduce the behavior.

There is a lot more you can do before resorting to drugs (excluding pheremones, which are great) and caging the cat, but I think you would be best served by watching Jackson Galaxy's tv show or his youtube videos. He is the ultimate pro and really knows cats and what they need.
posted by nanook at 7:22 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

He'll get very close, his eyes will dilate, he'll extend his neck toward an arm or leg and he'll often let out a relatively long, complaining meow and then chomp down on the limb.

This is such a distinctively non-attack behavior that I wonder if he's having some kind of instinct-triggered experience or sensory disorder or seizure. You might try to catch it on video to show the vet and/or a behaviorist - you'll never reproduce it at a clinic, so might as well spend some time trying to get cell phone video at least.

Is there anything firm you can say about the timing? You talk about coming home in the evenings and not knowing if it will happen, but does it ever happen in the morning? Midday on weekends? Middle of the night (I'm assuming it's happened if you're worried about confining him)?

I would definitely suggest upping his active playtime - not touching him, but playing feather-onna-stick or laser chase - to see if just getting his ya-yas out fixes the problem. But keep your phones handy and know how to use the video program so you can capture it and prove to the vet it's not overstimulation (at least, not by visible entities) or rough play/cat ambush and is actually weirder than that. Maybe also keep a log for a few weeks to see if you can identify a pattern or related behaviors (a limp, a failure to self-clean like normal, not eating as much, something that might at least give you a hint if it's pain or some kind of neuro event or only when certain sounds play or TV or whatever).
posted by Lyn Never at 7:59 AM on April 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

One of our cats does exactly this, down to the warning maow. Sadly, she's the only one we raised from a kitten, so we can't blame forces from her past. She just seems to be kind of angry and aggressive naturally--she's a calico, so we blame that.

As suggested above, scruffing her before she starts (if I notice it's about to happen) or as soon as she bites is the only way I can protect myself. Then, while scruffing with one hand, I scoop her up with the other hand and put her in her "safe place", which is the top of our cat tree in a corner in the living room. Usually, that is sufficient. Sometimes, it just winds her up further and she comes back to bite me some more. Then I scruff her and carry her the same way to the bathroom for some quiet alone time in the dark, which always settles her down.

Our vet has suggested prozac, because she's also overly aggressive with our other cats, but we have not tried that yet. Handling her in this way (and similarly when she attacks the other cats) has significantly reduced the bloodshed.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:23 AM on April 21, 2015

Our cat used to do this. He tried it with me precisely once and got himself solidly wopped for his trouble. Not enough to hurt him, just enough to make it clear that I was bigger and tougher than him and wasn't going to put up with it. My wife wasn't so direct and so he persisted, the thing that finally solved it totally was us getting another cat who he could bond with.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 9:05 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Check into clicker training your cat -- simple things like to come when called, or to sit/lie down on command. It's a fun interactive way to play with your cat, your cat will be really tired from training sessions, and the communication bond that emerges might help immensely.
posted by apennington at 9:27 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

One of our cats does this a lot when we are walking past. He will attack our ankles and get really starey-eyed. Not good.

I figured out that he wanted attention/play, because he would immediately jump on a fishing wand toy and play like mad with it if I used that to distract him.

I wonder whether the prey instinct gets a little confused in your cat's head. Maybe he's a bit bored, too. In any case, Jackson Galaxy and others will recommend that you play with your cat a few minutes a day, just to defuse that prey instinct.

We keep a fishing toy in each room now and grab it whenever the cat looks like he's getting a bit glazed over. He plays quite violently for a couple of minutes and then gets tired (you'll know this is happening when he lays on his side and looks bored). You could do that with your kitty, too.
posted by vickyverky at 10:05 AM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Coming in late to suggest that you consider the possibility of feline hyperaesthesia syndrome, which is a neurological disorder. The clues in your question that made me think of it is the eye dilation and the suddenneess and randomness of the attacks. Typically, cats with hyperaesthesia (or hyperesthesia) will attack themselves - growling at and biting their own tails, sometimes obsessively and to the point of wounding themselves. The more common sign of hyperaesthesia is "rippling" skin on the lower back. Sometimes the episodes are accompanied by manic behavior, and occasionally they are followed by things you would normally see after an epileptic seizure - vomiting or heavy sleep.

The old vet thinking was that it was a type of obsessive compulsive behavior (particularly the self-mutilation), but current thinking is that it is a type of seizure disorder. (Some cats with the disorder have been known to have tonic-clonic seizures afterwards ranging from mild to severe.) While cats with this disorder usually self-harm, some cats turn the aggression outwards and will attack other cats or humans.

Try to observe her behavior very closely before and after, to see if the tell-tale back twitches are there. (I know before is hard since it's unpredictable.) There are pharm treatments for hyperaesthesia, ranging from SSRIs, to tricyclics and MOAI inhibitors. Phenobarbitol is also used if there are seizures. I've got a cat that has just started a low dose of prozac for this. She severely wounded another cat during one of her episodes.

Anyhow, something to consider.
posted by ereshkigal45 at 1:17 PM on April 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

in terms of isolating the cat at night while you figure out the behavior, you could try a zip top playpen. Plenty of space for a litter box and a cat bed (maybe both an open and enclosed one), while still giving the cat room to move around.
posted by tan_coul at 2:37 PM on April 21, 2015

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