Downtime

My Violent Kitten Has Me Living in Terror

Sometimes he goes after my leg like he is taking down a gazelle.

A black kitten with its back arched and its mouth open, exposing teeth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

Last fall, a stray kitten walked into my home and adopted me. He was about 8 to 10 months old when this happened and has been a loving, cuddly cat most of the time, but he gets violent on occasion. I had female cats for most of my life and I’m used to rough kitten play, but this guy can be a terror. He is intact, for now, and will be neutered next month. (The delay is due to finances and a wonky work schedule.) He has high places to climb, lots of toys, a clean box, a cat tree, and more, but his favorite target is me.

He will sometimes go after my leg like he is taking down a gazelle. The other day he was lying on my chest and after about five minutes, his ears folded back, his eyes turned black, and he tried to bite my cheek. I never hit him or respond with violence, but I have jerked away from him. I’ve tried a squirt bottle, but water doesn’t bother him; he likes getting wet. Yelling and loud noises don’t seem to faze him, either. I just don’t know how to handle this. None of my other cats were ever this violent, and I can’t live with a cat that scares me.

What if these attacks don’t end after he gets fixed? How can I deal with him when he gets violent?

—Human Scratching Post

Dear Human Scratching Post,

I usually like to start this column with a little joke or a lighthearted aside to help ease us into the issue at hand, but I will forgo any tangential bons mots this time, as you are currently under siege in your home and in dire need of assistance. Although that preamble could itself be considered a “lighthearted aside.” Hmm. Pondering this is not saving us any time, which I imagine is of the essence because of that bellicose cat. Oh yeah, the cat! Let’s figure this out.

For help, I called certified feline behavior consultant Ingrid Johnson and described your issue to her. “What I think he’s experiencing is what’s called ‘play-deprived’ and ‘prey-deprived’ behavior,” she says. He will calm down somewhat once you get him neutered, but it won’t magically fix the behavior that seems like psychotic bloodlust to you.

“What happens is they chase things that move, like your ankles or your hands while you’re talking and gesturing,” Johnson says. This is incredibly entertaining for him, and what makes it even more exciting is that his prey (that’s you, the kind human giving food and shelter) jolts or shrieks in response. He goes after you like a gazelle because you kind of act like one. “It’s super fulfilling and very fun. That keeps him doing the behavior.”

You won’t be able to undo his deep, instinctual urges to attack prey, but you can help redirect it to objects that don’t have nerve endings. Johnson recommends taking stock of the toy collection. “If you leave toys all over the house all the time, then those toys become super benign and boring.” Certain “solo active toys” like little furry catnip mice are fine to have scattered around. But “interactive wand toys,” the string-connected playthings that bob and dance, should be hidden from sight when not in use. “He should get multiple sessions a day where he can play with [the wand toys],” Johnson says. “He’ll be motivated now because they’ve been in the closet, and he hasn’t seen them in a while. Get a few different ones and change them up so he’s really driven to go after them.
That’s going to make a huge difference.”

If (or rather, when) he attacks you, try not to react like a hunted gazelle. Calmly retrieve one of the wand toys and redirect his focus to it. It’ll take some getting used to, but if you do it consistently, you will start to see results.

Toys are good and all, but if you want to address the issue in a way that will really get his attention, you should think about bringing out the big guns.

We’re talking about fighting fire with fire.

We’re talking about tossing a grenade onto a landmine.

We’re talking about getting another cat.

“We need to be cautious about who we introduce,” Johnson says. “It needs to be a male that is social and likes to play with other cats.” This is not a quick fix (in fact, this fix will probably live into its late-teens), but if done correctly, it’s a solution without equal. “No human is ever going to be an appropriate match for a cat. We’re too fragile.” Cats, meanwhile, are specially designed to wrestle and spar with other cats. It’s like Godzilla: When our civilization’s technology fails, only a rival monster can help.

Introducing cats requires patience, and you should spend a good amount of time researching best practices before diving in. (Johnson has a guide on her website that’s worth checking out.) Given that your cat was a stray, he probably has experience with other cats, and you need to make sure that any new housemates do as well. Your existing kitty might go a little overboard at first because he’s been so starved for high-octane cat-on-cat action, and Johnson recommends brief, monitored sessions to ease into the situation. “You need to introduce slowly and positively,” she advises. “They need to have short wrestle sessions together so they can get a rapport with each other and learn how to play properly.”

This is probably a tad overwhelming. It may seem like going to get your tires rotated and having the mechanic tell you to lease a new hatchback as a companion vehicle. But it’s worth keeping in mind as you start to work with your cat with the toy-diversion strategy that I first mentioned. If that doesn’t yield any progress and you have doubts about adopting another cat (or simply can’t do it), then I recommend getting in touch with a behaviorist for an in-person consultation. The problem may be painfully urgent, but all the best solutions will require patience.