Help us retrain our attack cat.
August 3, 2016 8:03 AM   Subscribe

Kitty randomly attacks us. Can we train her out of it?

Kitty is a calico, about seven years old. We got her from a shelter at about a year old. She is our lone kitty, as she prefers. She's very well adjusted, and smart: she comes when called, walks on a leash, and is very well-behaved in general (no counters, no peeing/pooping out of box, only occasional vomit). She gets adequate attention and play. We love her lots.

Our one problem is the random killing attacks. They follow petting/scratching about 3/4 of the time, and I understand that it's often kitty language for "enough" or "overload!", so we watch her carefully and stop petting when she turns her head quickly (the prelude). If we don't, or sometimes even if we are as careful as can be, it proceeds as a full-on attack, charging at me, both front paws engaged, and hard biting. Sometimes this comes without provocation. My reaction is always to yelp, but just to pull away and ignore her for a few minutes even if she then asks for more petting. The attack lasts a few seconds, then she's done and back to normal.

The most common setting is when we're settling into bed for the evening. Usually she's just had a play-with-hairband session, and we've gotten into bed, she's settled on a lap or next to one of us, we pet her, and ... attack.

These attacks are concerning in terms of who cat-sits if we go on vacation: she will want petted, then attack, and that's hard to explain to our 75-year-old neighbor, for instance.

Is there any way we can train her out of this, to focus her energy somewhere else, or to not attack? Would click-training be a thing? She really is quite smart and attentive, so I'm thinking it's worth a try. Any solutions are welcome.
posted by Dashy to Pets & Animals (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have a cat who does this. He will also chase and attack you at random. The instances of attack have gone down a lot since I started keeping small water guns in every room. I spray the cat every time he bites me (or others). Now he bites me a lot less frequently.

Negative reinforcement is probably a last resort, though. My cat was not interested in training.
posted by possibilityleft at 8:23 AM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

This behavior stopped in my four year old cat when we began to let her outside. She literally transformed into a chill little sweetheart. Usual disclaimer about letting your cat outside.
posted by pintapicasso at 8:29 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

My cats seem to want to do this as I'm setting down to bed at night.

I use a squirt bottle half filled with water (the best ones come from Walgreens in the travel-size toiletries section) the first sign of thinking about an attack. After a few initial sprays, now I just have to shake the bottle and the behavior stops.
posted by answergrape at 8:30 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Have you tried exaggerated 'OW's and acting as if you're in pain whenever she starts attacking too much? This works better on younger animals, but it's a good way to train them into being a bit gentler with their humans.
posted by dinty_moore at 8:31 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm at work and can't go into detail but a few things:

- Anyone who tells you your cat is working from human motives (jealousy, malice) is wrong and outdated.

- Negative reinforcement is generally not good.

- Don't let your cat outside.

This book is quite excellent for pet owners wishing to redirect vacuum behaviour or over excitement. I recommend it very, very highly.
posted by Nyx at 8:32 AM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I had this cat.

We settled on a 3 strokes rule and decided she was a sit next to us cat, not a petting cat.

Pet her 3 times on the head, she'll settle in next to you, leave her alone purring.
posted by littlewater at 8:49 AM on August 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: I'd prefer to positively train, and avoid negative reinforcement (though I do howl loudly). Letting her out is not an option.
posted by Dashy at 8:49 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do you have any toys that the cat can shred? This may not solve the whole problem, but I have noticed that our little furry friend is calmer when she can tear up the occasional feather toy. She likes the ones with a whippy plastic stick and a spray of feathers on the end. Sometimes if she is grumpy, I play with her with the toy until she chills out.
posted by Frowner at 8:51 AM on August 3, 2016

I fostered a cat with a habit like that. I had her for almost ten months and got her to calm down a lot. I've heard that she's since become a much more laid-back pet for the people who eventually adopted her.

The key with that cat was to go very calm immediately. That takes an effort when an animal is attacking you, but it's effective. You go very calm and you push back, lightly. Cat attack technique is predicated on the prey animal freaking out and pulling away, so when you don't, often it stops the attack right there. The predator script crashes.

Sometimes hissing at a cat will snap them out of it too. Remind them in a non-violent way that you're also a large dangerous predator.

I asked a question here about that cat and had some useful responses.
posted by zadcat at 8:53 AM on August 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

Usually she's just had a play-with-hairband session

This can be exacerbating the situation. Kitty is still in kill-play-kill mode. They take awhile to come down from this.

They're not like dogs who can tell the difference. Once the "PLAY" button has been flipped, the difference between a hand and a hairtie goes out of the window.

Cat tails are their language translators. If you're petting her and her tail is twitchy, stop petting. Thumping of the tail (even light thumping, a contented kitty does not make any noise with their tail) is another sign of irritation.

"Hard biting" as in breaking skin? If these bites aren't breaking skin then they're warning bites, she's saying "OK STOP ENOUGH NOW." Also make sure you're clipping her claws, or using softcaps.

dinty_moore is right in that you need to exaggerate your pain at her actions. "OW!" loudly and pull away and refuse to look at her.
posted by INFJ at 8:58 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Jackson Galaxy recommends the "finger nose," or, let the cat pet you.
You're Petting Your Cat All Wrong!
posted by lindseyg at 9:00 AM on August 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

What works with my attack cat:
1. Lots of playtime aside from the hairband thing.
2. Minimal petting, paying attention to when he gets excited to bite.
3. If he does bite, I hiss back and him and let him know it hurts.
4. I always give him a treat after our playtime, it is kind of his reward for "killing" the toy, and it helps him see that playtime is over.
Good luck!
posted by NoraCharles at 10:06 AM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Probably the easiest thing you can do is not play with her and pet her in the same session. That way she won't be still engaged in play fighting and hunting when it is time for physical affection.

If she could go outside and hunt little birdies and beetles and fledglings and mice and rats she wouldn't be so tempted to grab your hand and try to bite through its vertebra. But it is really tough to give a cat enough hunting stimulation while keeping it an indoor cat. You might find that a companion cat would make her life interesting enough that she didn't act deprived of hunting time, but a companion cat is a huge commitment and also has to be a good fit with her.

If you have the budget for it, you could try stimulating toys that are battery powered and skitter around the floor, and challenging puzzle toys to get a cat treat out of a puzzle box, but in my experience most cats realise that the toy is just an autonomous thing that is ignoring them pretty quickly and start ignoring it

Dawn and dusk are a cat's hunting time so she is more likely to attack you then.

Some cats can be trained to attack you only when you are wearing the catnip scented leather work glove.

Some cats can be trained to retrieve. But most likely if you had wanted to spend two hours a day in active play getting her exhausted you would have gotten a dog.

Warn your visitors that she is an attack cat who is apt to mistake fingers for big pink baby rats and it will help them avoid the behaviours that will get them clawed.

You can modify the way you pet her so she does not mistake it for an invitation to wrestle. Pokey-pokey fingers and tickling are more likely to incite the play/hunt reaction than grooming, but grooming can also be hugely stimulating.

It is a good idea to train your cat to regard you as a strict mama cat who will hold her down and thoroughly clean her ears in you want to. It is instinctive in a cat to give up and let themself be washed, but not instinctive for them to lie down and let themself be stroked. Stroking doesn't resemble grooming closely enough for the cat to accept it the same way. Some times a bit of fur pulling and dampness will make all the difference in the cats perception of what you are doing and what they will permit.

Training a kitten to never use claws on human skin has to be done early in life, when the claws are just getting hard enough to hurt. It is much harder to train a cat that is already old enough to have claws that can scratch. I have a cat that has no clue that his claws are going into people when he teeters off balance on a lap, and it is too late to train him. He was over a year old when I got him. But your cat knows when she is using her claws and is doing it on purpose and that is a social thing, where you can teach her that the claws only come out during play, and not during handling.
posted by Jane the Brown at 1:25 PM on August 3, 2016

If possible, try having kitty playtime before kitty dinnertime, instead of right before bed. Start the evening with high energy predatory behavior, winding down as you reward her for "hunting" with food, and winding down even more as she relaxes and chills out with you.

If this isn't possible, definitely separate petting time from playtime by a reasonable time gap. Most of these attacks sound like a cat who really, really wants to keep the attack play going.
posted by Owlcat at 6:32 PM on August 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

In a effort to support the previous posters' playtime comments (+1 for Owlcat, Jane, NoraC) . . . you need to play with kitty about 15 minutes/day, every day to disperse her energy. Unlike dogs, we cannot take cats for a walk to disperse energy. Playtime is the next best thing for their exercise needs. Your kitty has a lot of energy and it comes out through her little mouth (biting while petting and the attacks). Kitties do well with/need routine: groom, play, and then eat. The point of playing and grooming kitty is to develop her trust and confidence in you while you handle her and be close to her. Consider having the routine occur at the same time every day too. When upthread Jane talks about playtime, that's you playing with kitty, not kitty playing alone. Kitty needs alone toys and human+kitty toys; kitty has to have something to do when you're busy.

It might take $50-$100 to find interactive toys that appeal to kitty. In addition, you've got to rotate their usage because kitty isn't any different than you. She'll get bored with a toy after 1-2 weeks. Change to a different toy even if she isn't bored with one after 1-2 weeks anyways. It keeps toys fresh and stimulating.

Patience, please, while you and kitty adjust to the routine. It took my little friend a week to stop the attacks. He had that much excess reserved energy to use up through play.
posted by dlwr300 at 7:04 AM on August 4, 2016

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