To have a cat as a pet is to enter into a social contract in which you agree to harbor an animal that can seemingly turn on you at any time and without justification. Cat owners know that belly rubs can be met with a sudden and violent tornado of teeth and claws. (Experts aren’t sure why, but it’s possible repetitive behaviors like petting can annoy a cat over time.) A cat owner without bandages and hydrogen peroxide is not a prepared owner.
To get some advice on how to manage an aggressive cat, Mental Floss spoke with Shawna Garner, DVM, Lead Veterinarian for the pet assistance app FirstVet. If you should ever find yourself at odds with an allegedly domesticated cat, remember these tips to make sure you walk away with not much more than a scratch.
1. Avoid the Cat
According to the ASPCA, cats can become aggressive when they’re stressed, feeling territorial, wary of strangers, because of a medical issue, or for seemingly no reason at all. When a cat is preparing for a defensive attack, it will likely use body language to warn off others. It will crouch, flatten its ears, hiss, or develop piloerection (the hairs standing up). If you see a cat doing any or all of the above, remove yourself from the area until cooler feline minds prevail.
"When faced with an aggressive cat, the offending person should leave the room immediately and allow the cat to calm down with the owner," Garner says. "If the cat is left alone with a stranger in a room and becomes aggressive, then this person should back out of the room and allow the cat to calm down on their own. If a cat is being aggressive with their owner, they may need their own space, so it is best to leave them alone until they are ready to calm down."
2. Distract the Cat
An angry cat has one thing on its mind—to seek and destroy. It may be helpful to calm the cat by offering up a distraction in the form of a toy, a noise, a treat, or even tossing an object. "Using cat treats can help, but during times of stress some cats are not interested in treats," Garner says. "Toys are a great distraction as well, as it keeps their focus away from the events taking place."
3. Give the Cat a Time-Out
4. Use a Towel on the Cat
When cats are on the attack and escape isn’t possible, try to find a towel or other fabric to use as an obstacle between you and the cat. The cat may become frustrated it can’t strike at you directly and go on about its business.
It's also possible to throw a towel over the cat. "Allowing a cat to hide in a towel can help them relax, as some cats will immediately calm down if they feel they are hiding and they cannot see you," Garner says.
Towels can also be used to scoop up an angry cat, but since grabbing an irritated cat with a towel will only make it crankier, and you could get hurt, proceed with caution. (Don't try picking it up by its scruff, as Garner says that's no longer a recommended practice.) If the cat is cooling off, it can be handled carefully with just your hands: "If the cat is not stressed, placing a hand under the abdomen and wrapping your other hand around them to cradle them is the best way to move them, keeping them hugged to your body so they feel secure."
5. Try a Potato Chip Clip
Yes, really. "Low tension clips similar to chip bag clips placed on the lower dorsal neck area just above the shoulders have [been] shown to decrease anxiety and release endorphins to help calm a cat," Garner says.
6. Don’t Pull Away From a Cat Bite
Even though it seems counterintuitive, it’s best not to pull an arm away if a cat manages to sink its teeth or claws into you. Jerking your appendage back reinforces the idea that you’re prey.
"When in the act of getting bitten by a cat, the best response is to try not to panic, and allow the cat to flee," Garner says. "Cats often do not bite and latch on. They will continue to bite, back away, and strike again. Do not try to shake your hand or yank your hand out of the cat’s mouth. Instead, as soon as you feel the cat’s grip loosen, calmly back away."
7. Wear Goggles and Gloves When Approaching the Cat
Sometimes a cat needs to be handled even when it’s experiencing a bout of anger. In that instance, do what you can to protect yourself by wearing goggles, gloves, and boots, which should help cover areas a cat is most likely to aim for.
8. Don’t Block a Cat’s Escape Route
If you’re in a confrontation with a cat, don’t idle in front of a doorway while deciding whether or not to leave. Faced with the lack of an exit, the cat may become even more agitated. Allow the cat the space to leave.
9. Avoid Redirected Aggression in a Cat
Cats who begin to feel aggressive toward other cats or outside stimuli may turn that predatory instinct toward an available target—like their owner. If a cat is getting too worked up by staring outside, try covering that window.
10. Use Replacement Behavior for Cats Attacking Your Feet
Cats who like to swipe or nibble on feet should have their attention directed elsewhere. When you walk into a room, encourage the cat to sit and offer it a treat. It will eventually learn to be more relaxed as opposed to treating your feet like a toy. And don’t allow a kitten to playfully nibble on your hands or feet. It will likely grow into a cat who will want to do the same thing.
11. Treat Cat Wounds Seriously
If a cat manages to bite or scratch you, take it seriously. Cats can transmit a number of bacteria through wounds, including Staphylococcus. "Cat bites do pose a real danger to human health," Garner says. "Since cats and other animals do not routinely brush their teeth, there is a large bacterial load in the mouth. Cat bites often become infected easily, so any animal bite should be assessed by a human physician as soon as possible."