Almost every cat owner has experienced it. You're lazily lying under your covers when your cat pounces at your feet, biting and scratching. Sometimes you anticipate the attack, while sometimes it comes as a bit of a shock (especially if it happens when you're sleeping). You then either make it a game or push the cat off the bed, the latter being more common.
If you've ever tried to get your cat to stop attacking your feet, you know it's not easy. Sneak attacks on your feet can be undoubtedly annoying as well as incredibly painful, no matter how adorable and ready for world domination your cat is.
But, why does your sassy furball behave this way to begin with? And, how should you address your cat's behavior? To help us understand more about this common feline behavior and how to stop cats from gnawing at your feet, POPSUGAR turned to the experts.
Why does my cat attack my feet?
"The number one reason why they bite your feet is simply because they are prey animals," said Jackson Galaxy, renowned cat behavior and wellness expert, host of Animal Planet's My Cat From Hell, and New York Times best-selling author. Because cats in the wild are predators, they have a strong desire to hunt, climb, and scratch, even for enjoyment. "If there is something moving under the covers, that triggers what I call the 'raw cat,' which is the primal cat that lives inside all cats," Galaxy said. "It's in their nervous system, and their entire DNA comes to life when something is moving like prey." He explained that this is why your little panther might grab your ankles when you walk by. "Your cat is not attacking you," he said. "Your ankles may as well be a squirrel. Same thing!" Cats simply mistake your feet as prey or play toys.
Galaxy further explained that another reason cats find the lure of feet so irresistible is because they think it's a fun game, especially when you react by moving or making a sound. Galaxy noted that this does depend on the cat, but in general, "hunting" is more common in younger cats.
It may also be due to the age-old excuse: boredom. "If your cat has a lack of other opportunities for play, they'll likely seek out other outlets for their energy, including attacking your feet," said Jennifer Coates, DVM, serves on the advisory board for Cat Life Today. She also explained that cats may bite their owner's feet to show affection. Additionally, some cats might bite your feet to get your attention. "They may have an empty food bowl or want somewhere that the door is closed," Sara Ochoa, DVM, a small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas and veterinary consultant for doglab.com said. Lastly, cats may attack any part of your body in an effort to stop an interaction that they've had enough of. "If your cat bites your feet then runs away after you have been playing with them, this may be their way of telling you to leave them alone," Dr. Ochoa said. "Some cats will bite when they have had too much attention or are tired of playing."
Your cat may also attack your feet due to some psychological reasons. For example, your cat may have been separated from its mother too early or your cat was never reprimanded by its mother for biting too harshly, said Gallant's Vice President of Medical Affairs, Dr. Shelly Zacharias, DVM, VMP, BCMAS. Dr. Zacharias further explained that medical concerns, such as hyperthyroidism, might also be at play. "Medical issues should always be the first thing to rule out," she said. "They are often the easiest to rule out as well."
How can I stop my cat from attacking my feet?
Dr. Coates recommends trying to ignore the behavior and distancing yourself from your cat when it exhibits inappropriate behavior. She also notes that a pair of slippers or thick socks might help. "If you can't ignore it, remove yourself from your cat's vicinity with as little fuss as possible and close a door between the two of you," she said. "Once everyone is calm, play with your cat using a feather wand or by tossing a stuffed toy that they can attack."
Galaxy stressed the importance of staying consistent. "We don't like it at 6 a.m. when it wakes us up, but we encourage it during the day when we're awake because we like to see them wiggle their butt and attack in a cute way," Galaxy said. "If you encourage it once, they're going to come back twice, regardless of the time of day because it's now a game to them." In order to break the habit, you have to ignore the behavior completely. "Don't squeal, don't move your toes, don't give them the satisfaction that this is a predictably wonderful game."
Dr. Zacharias agrees that not running away or moving your legs when your cat is attacking you could deter the behavior because that is exactly what they want their prey to do. "Instead, either lean down and gently push your cat away or, more safely, lean down and gently clap, snap, or make a curious sound to get his attention, and say 'no,'" she said. She also stressed the importance of not punishing your cat as it just makes your cat fear you and often be more defensively aggressive.
That said, it's important to avoid overtly correcting this undesirable behavior, such as physically trying to stop your cat from attacking your feet, because it may trigger further aggressive behavior, said Jamie Richardson, medical chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary, noting that cats respond significantly better to substitution. Dr. Richardson recommends trying to anticipate the attack and throwing your cat's favorite toy or treat across the room right when you see the first signs of inappropriate behavior (look for the low crouch, intense stare, and little wiggle that usually precedes a pounce). The hope is that your cat would chase the toy or treat instead of attacking your feet.
Scheduling a time to play or maintaining a stimulating environment also helps to deter unwanted biting or scratching. "Be sure to provide these options a few times a day," said J.J. Rawlinson, DVM, senior manager of community partnerships and welfare initiatives at Wallis Annenberg PetSpace. "If cats can even play for just five to 10 minutes a day, they're often tired and mentally stimulated enough that they will rest well during non-playtime." She also recommends providing toys that mimic cats' regular prey, only providing toys for set periods of time to keep them fresh and exciting, and giving cats places to climb.
Galaxy recommends establishing a rhythm for your cat's life by structuring playtime in a ritualized way. "Give them meals at the same time every day," he said. "Make sure you do playtime before meals so it simulates 'hunt, catch, kill, eat.'" He also recommends putting bird feeders outside the window as well as seats in the window so your cats are completely stimulated. "If you have the luxury of a backyard where the birds are out and the squirrels are out in the morning, put up a bird feeder and make sure they have a front-row seat," he said.
What if a stimulating environment or scheduled playtime isn't enough to stop my cat from attacking my feet?
Shadi Delshad, an animal behaviorist and the founder of National Kitty, recommends having more than one cat. "For some cats, regular playtime sessions combined with proper positive punishment will prevent the undesirable behavior," she said. "However, this simply isn't enough for more rambunctious cats. They will require a companion to release energy with." A second cat is the best way to ensure your cat releases all its pent-up energy, since you can't play with your cat 24/7. Delshad also explained that cats adopted in pairs have less behavioral issues. Sounds like a good enough reason to us!