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Pet Talk: Ankle Biter Just Wants to Play

Q. Our cat Charlie has started to attack our ankles when we are walking in the house. He seems to come out of nowhere, wrap his paws around an ankle, bite a few times and off he goes. He has drawn blood on a couple of occasions and we want this bad habit to stop. Is there anything you would recommend to stop Charlie from attacking us?

A. If Charlie does bite or scratch you it is important to avoid an infection. Be sure to clean the wound well and apply an antibiotic ointment, which can help reduce the risk of infection. An infected wound may require oral antibiotics as well.

You didn’t say how old Charlie is, but this behavior is common in kittens and young cats who are bored. Cats instinctively stalk and attack and Charlie is simply redirecting his need for natural play toward you. He isn’t doing it to hurt you but considers your ankles an easy target moving across the floor, which triggers his prey drive.

When your feline attacks ankles, it’s a form of play aggression. Indoor cats need opportunities to perfect their hunting skills. If Charlie is an only cat, this behavior could indicate he feels deprived of sufficient playtime and is looking for ways to act out his play-prey aggression.

What Charlie needs are other outlets for his hunting instincts. You should provide some stimulating, interactive playtime with him every day. A good choice for a toy is one of the fishing pole types. These kinds of toys keep a distance between you and your cat’s teeth and nails. This should help teach him an acceptable distance to keep during playtime.

If you know some of Charlie’s hiding spots from where he likes to pounce on you, carry one of his favorite toys with you when approaching them. Right before you come to the spot where he usually ambushes you, throw the toy for him to chase and attack. He is waiting to get you to play with him and by doing this you are making the game more fun and safe for you. If you repeat this, hopefully your kitty will lie in wait for his toy and not your vulnerable ankles.

Leaving boxes or paper bags you bring home out for a couple of days will give Charlie new things to investigate. Another thing to try is a puzzle feeder so he has to work for his food or hide treats around the house so he has to hunt for them.

Never let your cat play with your hands or feet because then he will think they are acceptable toys. Remember Charlie is biting your ankles because he thinks they’re prey. Part of getting him to stop attacking your ankles is to teach him they are not acceptable prey.

Also avoid yelling or hitting him when he grabs you as this may encourage him to play rougher or even turn into real aggression. Instead of trying to get away, gently push toward your cat because prey would try to get away and not move toward a predator. This will confuse your feline and he should let go once he realizes you are not acting like prey. Stay still for a moment and don’t pay any attention to Charlie. This should take away the thrill of the catch.

A cat that continues this behavior may benefit from having another feline friend who will wrestle and play with him.

Hope some of my suggestions will help Charlie stop this unwanted and sometimes painful behavior.

Sally Salopek is the owner and operator of Attend-A-Pet pet sitting services in northern Door County. She has also worked professionally with animals in health care, pet grooming, training, wildlife rehab and rescue. Send your pet-related questions to her at [email protected]

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