Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”


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Cat aggression towards owner likely triggered by novel odor

Inquiry:

An “out of the blue” attack happened last night with my cat. Pumpkin, a domestic short hair, six years of age. I am her mother since 8 weeks old. Prior to the attack I noticed pupils dilated, sniffing my hands and puffy tail. I proceeded to empty clothes dryer and seconds later she is growling, hissing coming at me with claws & teeth. I close door between us & am just stunned. She has been behind closed doors since and I have not attempted to reconcile. I have never seen this behavior from her and have replayed it over and over trying to determine why & what caused the violent act.

Diane from Castaic, CA.

Reply from Dr. Polsky

Redirected aggression is a diagnostic category that can be used to explain feline aggressive responding, and based on your description of the sequence of event, my best guess is this is what happened. It is likely that your cat smelled something novel on your hand which in turn caused her to become aroused which in turn induced an aggressive state. Lacking any other suitable target to attack, such as another nearby cat, she redirected her aggression towards an inappropriate target such as yourself.  This kind of feline aggression is actually quite common, and clinical studies show that cats who display this kind of aggression often vocalize beforehand and remained highly aroused after an attempted attack. Also, usually there are specific stimuli which “trigger “ the redirected attack, such as the presence of another cat who is inaccessible when the cat becomes aroused, an unexpected crashing sound, a novel odor, or the presence of an unfamiliar person. You are fortunate that you were not bitten, because cat bites can readily lead to serious medical conditions. Moreover, the same sort of behavior could have been displayed towards an invited person coming into your home, perhaps because the person had a novel odor on their trousers  (perhaps from their own cat or dog). If a cat has a history of displaying  redirected aggression therefore making a display of this kind of aggression foreseeable, and if the individual sustains serious injury because of this, then legal action against you may follow.