There is a natural fear among people when relating to wild animals. The fear is one of being attacked. It is both reasonable and an act of nature in that the fear between animals and people help to keep them at a healthy distance. You might be a little uneasy around a stray cat out of fear of being attacked. The question is, will a stray cat actually attack you?
In all likelihood, no. Stray cats are generally either current pets that simply wandered away from home or former pets that were abandoned by their owners. As such, they are used to human contact and unlikely to be aggressive without cause. But know this, cat attacks are serious when they do occur. Cats have a number of built-in defensive systems that can cause quite a bit of harm to you.
The information in this post explains the basics of cat aggression and why cats attack. It is not intended to make you fearful of cats. Rather, the goal is to help you better understand how the feline brain works so that you can be prepared to assist a stray cat in need. Everything has been laid out in a series of 10 facts relating to cat aggression.
1. Aggression Is a Natural Defense
All animals are wired to be aggressive under certain circumstances. Aggression is a tool of nature that animals use in self-defense. Cats are no exception. While most domesticated felines rarely show aggression toward human beings, there are legitimate reasons for doing so. Many of those reasons will be discussed later. For now, though, let us start by defining what aggression actually is.
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), aggression in cats is defined as “threatening or harmful behavior directed toward a person, another cat or other animals.” The ASPCA goes on to explain:
“In pet cats, aggressive behavior can range from cats who hiss and avoid the target of their aggression to cats who attack.”
The most important thing we can take away from the ASPCA’s explanation is that aggression does not always mean attack. A cat can be aggressive enough to show its unhappiness but not enough to actually scratch or bite you. You can avoid an actual attack by leaving a cat showing signs of aggressive behavior alone. That leads us to the second fact about cat aggression.
2. Aggressive Cats Show Warning Signs
It is rare for a domesticated cat to attack a human being without showing any warning signs whatsoever. Again, the warning signs are part of nature’s defense system. When an animal shows signs of being aggressive, that is an indicator to whatever is instigating it to back off. The ASPCA divides the many warning signs into two categories: offensive and defensive postures.
Offensive postures are as follows:
- A stiff posture characterized by raising the rear and lowering the tail toward the ground
- Ears turned upright with the backs pointing slightly forward
- The animals fur sticking out, especially on the tail
- Pupil constriction and a direct stare (some aggressive cats will directly face and stare down an opponent)
- Growling, howling, or hissing.
Defensive postures are as follows:
- A crouching posture with the head tucked in
- Tail curved around the body and tucked in
- Dilated pupils and wide eyes
- Flattened ears with the tips facing rearward
- Turning sideways rather than facing an opponent
- Hissing, spitting, and quick strikes with the paws.
There are a few other warning signs that are common to both offensive and defensive postures. They include things like growling and shrieking, scratching, biting, and showing both the teeth and claws.
Any stray cat exhibiting these warning signs could attack if not left alone. Remember, the warning signs exist to tell you to back off. Should you encounter a stray cat exhibiting them, your best course of action is to simply back away slowly. Do not make any sudden movements that the cat may interpret as aggression on your part.
3. Fear Is the Number One Cause of Aggression
In the vast majority of cases involving cats attacking people, fear is the motivator. A stray cat may lash out at the veterinarian because it is unfamiliar with that person and afraid of what he or she is going to do. In such cases, attacking is a defense mechanism. If the cat believes its own safety is at risk and there is no means of escape, there is nothing left to do but go on the offensive.
You may run across a stray cat in your yard only to discover it soon adopts a defensive posture. While the animal is paying attention to you, it is also looking for a way to escape. Not being able to find one could push the fearful animal into attack mode. Fear is telling the cat that attacking is the only way to survive.
4. Cats Can Display Redirected Aggression
In human beings, redirected aggression is aggression that is caused by some sort of unrelated stimulation. Guess what? Cats can display the same kind of aggression. You could have a stray cat sitting on your porch behaving rather calmly as you prepare a nice bowl of food and water. But some sort of stimulation you do not recognize could be making the cat anxious. The cat could lash out and attack you as you bend over to put the food and water down.
A good example would be witnessing a conflict between other animals. Two squirrels fighting, for instance, or a predator capturing prey. The event causes anxiety in the cat and elevates feelings of fear. You walking up behind the animal can startle it and lead to an attack.
5. Pain Can Trigger Aggression
Animals do not deal with pain in the same way we do. When you and I feel pain, we instantly start thinking about possible causes. We may grab an aspirin or head to the ER. When an animal feels pain, that pain triggers the natural defensive systems. As such, pain can cause a cat to be aggressive. And it doesn’t take much. Even mild pain can turn a docile stray into an aggressive attacker.
For this reason, you should be very careful about how you physically handle a stray cat. Be careful about picking it up and stroking its fur. Unless you have had experience with a particular cat in the past, you have no way of knowing if it is sick or injured. Touching the animal in just the right way could cause pain that leads to aggression.
6. The Hunting Instinct Can Cause Aggression
There are plenty of cases of cat owners having to give up their pets because the animals have a tendency to attack their feet and ankles. In such cases, the aggression is the natural result of the animal’s hunting instinct. Such cases represent rare instances in which a cat is behaving aggressively without any external stimulation.
You are unlikely to encounter this kind of behavior in a stray cat. But that’s not to say it’s out of the question. A stray cat can be hungry enough that the hunting instinct completely takes over. Just walking by could cause the cat to lunge at your feet. Fortunately, this kind of aggression almost always demonstrates with a posture that includes crouching, a fixated look, ears facing forward, and a low-profile walk.
7. Unwanted Attention Can Trigger Aggression
Not all domesticated cats appreciate close human contact. Some of them just want to be left alone until they are ready to make contact themselves. Forcing a cat to accept human contact can create anxiety that eventually results in attack. A good example would be a cat attacking a toddler who insisted on following it around the house.
Cats are very adept at letting people know when they’ve had enough contact. Let’s say you’re dealing with a stray who seems to be very social at first, but after a few minutes of contact begins to resist. That’s the point to stop and leave the cat alone. If you persist even as the animal is attempting to resist, you may be creating a situation that could lead to aggression.
Some telltale signs to look for include skin twitching, tail twitching, attempts to pull away, and even gentle swats with the paws. This is the cat telling you that it has had enough.
8. Aggression Can Be Territorial
Cats are territorial by nature. Even domesticated strays will find a territory to call home and make every effort to protect it. This can lead to territorial and sexual aggression during mating periods. The good news is that this form of aggression is rare toward human beings. Cats do not view humans as territorial or sexual competitors. The bad news is that attacks can be serious when they do occur.
9. Aggression Can Be Learned
There are occasions when cats learn to be aggressive because it gets them something. For instance, take a stray that bites when it is hungry. That behavior may have been learned while the cat was still a house pet. As a kitten, the animal may have bitten its owner in an attempt to play, but the owner interpreted it as a demand for food. Feeding the kitten then made the association, in the animal’s mind, that you bite to get fed.
10. Queens aggressively defend their kittens
The last reason an aggressive cat may decide to attack is in defense of kittens. Queens are very protective of their babies for the first few weeks of life. In some cases, they can be protective for a couple of months. Like any other mother, a queen doesn’t appreciate anyone or anything that threatens the little ones.
This is the reason experts suggest staying away from a queen and her kittens during the first few days after birth. Where stray cats are concerned, this is great advice. Unless the queen or any of her kittens requires emergency veterinarian care, it’s best just to stay away from the new family for a few days.
In summary, cases of stray cats attacking humans are rare. The best thing you can do to avoid an attack is to recognize the warning signs of both offensive and defensive posturing. They indicate that an attack may be imminent. Should you ever observe these warning signs in a stray, just walk away and leave the animal alone.