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Why cats attack fingers and toes and what to do about it

Especially when cats are kittens and very playful, they tend to attack, claw, and even bite the feet and hands of their humans. This pouncing often happens without warning. Understandably, cat owners want to know what these little ambushes are all about. 

Here's what causes sudden cat attacks and how you can prevent them. 

Why cats attack fingers and toes

Usually when a cat bites it is just trying to play or "hunt."
Usually when a cat bites it is just trying to play or "hunt."  © 123RF/Darya Fedorova

First of all, cat lovers can relax: when house cats attack peoples' hands and feet, they're usually just trying to play. Cats are very rarely aggressive and when they are, there is usually a good reason for their behavior.

In fact, a cat's natural hunting instinct leads it to "mistake" people's individual toes and fingers for prey. This explains why toes that peek out from under the blanket are extremely enticing targets.

Kittens, in particular the very young ones, tend to give in to this basic instinct. They are still figuring out what good and bad behavior is.

But adult cats that are still attacking hands and feet might be doing it for a different reason. They might be bored. If a house cat doesn't have enough toys or isn't sufficiently occupied, it will look for something to do, or bite. 

There might be other more serious reasons that the cat is attacking. For example, if a cat is really scared it might respond aggressively every time it is approached. 

Cats also like their quiet time and if this is not respected, they sometimes lash out. That's why children should be taught not to approach a cat when it's taking its nap, because the cat could bite.

Biting might also be an indication that the cat is in pain. This could be the case if you notice that the cat snaps at you when you touch a certain part of its body or if it seems to be suffering from general discomfort. A visit to the vet will help you figure out what's going on. So don't put the visit of for long if your cat becomes suddenly aggressive.

Kittens love to attack fingers and toes.
Kittens love to attack fingers and toes.  © Unsplash/Roxanne Desgagnés

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Can you do anything about the biting?

You can train your cat not to bite by giving it something else to play with.
You can train your cat not to bite by giving it something else to play with.  © Unsplash/Sarah Brown

You don't want to just grin and bear your cat's attacks, even if they are just playful.

Allowing these love bites in the long run isn't a good solution, because your cat's bad behavior might make children and other guests adverse to the animal.

The best thing to do is to train young cats not to bite as soon as possible.

And the sooner the better, because older cats are usually more difficult to re-educate.

So if your kitten attacks fingers and toes, this behavior should be met immediately with a clear "No!"

However, it helps to be forgiving and to offer the fur ball an alternative activity after you discipline it. A small ball, a feather string, or a rustling toy should do the trick.

Giving the cat something to play with has an added bonus: it tires out the cat. A tired cat is a peaceful cat. Likewise, contact with other feline friends or regular outdoor play can help keep a cat from using up its energy on human toes.

Consistency is a must, especially for young cats

It's very important not to put up with unwanted kitten behavior, because although it may seem cute at first, it will be less so when they are full-grown cats. If you suddenly start rebuking your full-grown cat for behavior it was allowed as kittens, it can be really confusing for the cat.

Another way to teach the cat that aggressive behavior is a no-no is actually to ignore the behavior or only give it as much attention as necessary. If the cat is acting out, just turn away from it or leave and give it some time to calm down. 

It doesn't do any good to yell at, hit, or punish a cat.  Any type of reaction that scares the cat can damage your relationship with your pet more than it helps educate it.

The bottom line is that consistency, patience, and composure are the best ways to deal with these pesky attacks.

Cover photo: 123RF/Darya Fedorova

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