Predatory Aggression in Cats
Predation is the way in which cats obtain their food in the wild. It is debatable whether this behavior classifies as aggression in the true sense but because it involves the destruction of a third party it is usually included. There are two situations relating to predatory behavior that cause owners concern. One is during kittenhood when predatory behaviors are being rehearsed and honed, sometimes at the owner’s expense, and the other occurs in adulthood when true predatory behavior is directed toward small varmints.
Predatory play is one of several categories of play behavior exhibited by young kittens. Although the evolutionary function of predatory play is to rehearse and sharpen predatory skills for use in later life, it is often interpreted by owners as blatant aggression. When a kitten has playmates (normally littermates) for company, predatory play aggression is rarely a problem, but when feline company is lacking, kittens may direct their playfulness towards their owners. Typically cats in this mode hide behind walls stalking and pouncing on approaching feet and ankles, inflicting scratches and minor bite wounds.
Of course, mature cats have, for the most part, already fine tuned their hunting skills and, given the opportunity, will capture and kill small rodents and birds. Although some owners detest this aspect of their cat’s behavior, it is natural. The only way to stop an adult cat from chasing and capturing prey is to keep the prey away from them -– and even then, the predatory instinct will need some release. It is your job to provide such opportunities for your cat in the form of mobile toys and other objects … a poor substitute from the cat’s perspective, but better than nothing.
A kitten or young cat that exhibits aggression toward people or other cats with movement as a trigger, it may well be displaying a form of predatory aggression. The most likely candidates for this type of predatory aggression are cats that have few alternatives onto which they can direct their predatory drive, e.g. totally indoor cats. The age of onset of predatory play behavior is 5 weeks. The behavior normally decreases as the cat approaches adulthood but in some cases it will continue into adulthood. Some say predatory play that carries over into adulthood may be more likely in early-neutered cats, who retain some juvenile behavioral characteristics.
Predatory behavior directed towards a cat’s natural prey like birds and mice follows the classical pattern of appetitive and consummatory phases – the hunt and capture followed by actual ingestion. A cat looking at birds through a window may chatter his teeth and gently switch his tail in anticipation. Some may even crouch, ready to pounce. If opportunity permits, they will move toward the prey with lightning speed and attempt to catch the hapless creature between their paws. If successful in their attempts they will quickly kill their stunned victim with a bite directed to the neck, effectively severing the creature’s spinal cord.
Since predatory behavior is a normal constituent of the cat’s behavioral repertoire, treatment of problems related to predatory behavior will be fruitless if aimed at complete extinction of the tendency. It is best to divert and redirect any predatory tendencies onto alternative more acceptable or appropriate substrates, such as toys. Mobile toys, that stimulate predatory play behavior, should be introduced into the indoor cat’s environment as a preventive strategy to provide an outlet for otherwise frustrated predatory tendencies. Toys should be rationed, rotated and periodically reactivated by the owner because cats quickly tire of the same game and generally do not have much interest in stationary objects. No self-respecting natural prey lies around on the living room floor all day just waiting to be flung around just one more time.
Examples of Suitable Toys
If, despite preventive measures, predatory attacks still occur, they should be redirected as soon as the cat’s intentions become apparent. For example, an owner might dangle a piece of string while going down the stairs if the cat is waiting at the bottom. Contexts in which predatory aggression is exhibited should be avoided as far as possible. For example, it may be best to shut a rambunctious cat out of the bedroom while the bed is being made. Unless owner-directed predatory aggression is severe, the owners should not flee like prey but rather “freeze” and discourage the cat by diverting its attention or by spraying it with water. It is important that water is sprayed within a second or two of an aggressive assault otherwise the cat may associate punishment with something other than the attack. Following successful diversion of a predatory attack, a toy or game should be introduced to allow the cat to discharge his predatory energies appropriately.
If appropriate and safe, access to the outdoors is the most natural way for a cat to find alternative objectives to concentrate his predatory drive on. Allowing a cat access to the outdoors is the owner’s choice, and the high risks of trauma and disease should always be taken into serious consideration.
Indoor/outdoor cats should always be fully vaccinated and neutered, and should probably have a full set of claws. It may be best to keep them on a harness and long lead at first to teach them to remain close to the house. A fenced-in yard from which the cat cannot escape is best. Daytime excursions are safer than nighttime ones.
Examples of Suitable Toys to Treat Aggressive Behaviors
- Agitating a stick with feathers on its end, cat dancer, etc.
- Pulling a cheese treat or crumpled paper ball attached to a piece of string across the floor
- Burying dry food treats under a pile of straw, cats will dig for them
- Freezing bits of raw fish into an ice cube, cats will lick this
- Food puzzles, such as a ball that releases dry food as it rolls
- Integrate some raw food into the diet: boneless chicken, fish, etc. (Make sure the meat is very fresh and has been washed thoroughly)
- Fish tank (insure that top is well secured so the cat cannot get at the fish or fall in)
- Videos of birds, or mice, etc. (with sound effects)
- Bird feeder outside the window for visual stimulation
- Feather mobiles
- Small furry toys, such as toy mice, etc.
- Catnip toys
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This article was excerpted from the CD entitled “Behavior Problems in Cats – Etiology, Diagnostics and Treatments” by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, Professor of Clinical Sciences at Tufts University, School of Veterinary Medicine, © 1998, Trustees of Tufts College. To buy a full copy of the CD, contact