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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

I’ve recently adopted a cat, a year old, from the humane society. Bailey is everything we could ever ask for in a cat. He’s recently started exhibiting some weird behavior, namely “hugging” our carpeted stairs and trying to maul them, with his front and back claws. His pupils dilate when he does this, and he’s liable to lash out at anyone who gets too close. Otherwise, he doesn’t cause any trouble. Any idea what’s going on? Is it normal kitty behavior, or should I talk to my vet?

~ Erica

A cat at play

This cat is in the middle of an intense play session. Notice his dilated pupils and extended claws. Photo (PD) by Wikipedia user Monduela

Siouxsie: Judging from your description, Erica, this actually sounds like what we might refer to as predatory/play aggression. When cats play, they mimic the predatory activities they’d do in the wild: hunting, grabbing and “killing” their prey.

Thomas: When Bailey lashes out at people who walk by as he’s mauling his prey (the carpet), he’s redirecting his predatory instinct to you.

Bella: So how do you deal with this? Well, we’ve got a few ideas.

Siouxsie: First, we always suggest that with sudden behavior changes, you at least make a call to the vet to see whether you should bring him in for a checkup.

Thomas: But we think there are some things you can do at home to help Bailey “get his ya-yas out,” as Mama says.

Bella: Since Bailey is an only cat, he doesn’t have a chance to entertain himself by playing with a feline friend. You’ll have to make up for that by playing with him and getting him some solo play toys that stimulate his play drive.

Siouxsie: When you play with him, use an interactive toy that you can move around to mimic the prey that Bailey would chase in the wild.

Thomas: Our favorite interactive toys are Da Bird and Neko Flies. You can find these at most pet stores. When you use an interactive toy, play hard. Get him tired out, and if he’s healthy overall, don’t worry about exercising him until he pants.

Bella: For some tips on how to play with your cat (yes, believe it or not, there is a right way), check out this article Mama wrote for Catster.

Siouxsie: For best results, play with Bailey just before meals. Cats’ instinctive routine is “hunt, kill, eat, groom, sleep,” and if you play with him and then feed him, he’ll get on with the rest of the routine after he eats.

Thomas: Provide him with some solo play toys, too. You can find battery-powered toys that move on their own like the Fling-ama-String and the Undercover Mouse, or other toys that make appealing noises.

Bella plays with a chirping cardinal cat toy

Bella loves, loves, LOVES this chirping cardinal toy!

Bella: I love my Cardinal Call chirping bird! I play with it all the time!

Siouxsie: You’ll probably want to start teaching Bailey that the carpet is not to be attacked. If you haven’t got any scratching pads or posts in your house, get some. Cardboard cat scratching pads are not very expensive at all, and they’ll serve his need for “horizontal scratching.”

Thomas: Bailey should also have a vertical scratching post. Of course, lots of people make a big mistake when they get vertical scratch posts: they get shrimpy little carpet-covered models that don’t give adult cats the amount of stretching they need and reinforce the idea that scratching carpets is okay.

Bella: We recommend a sisal-covered scratch post that’s at least 1 1/2 times as tall as the cat. It should have a steady base and be well-constructed so it doesn’t wiggle around all over the place.

Siouxsie: You should expect to pay a goodly price for a high-quality scratching post. But the good news is that there are plenty of DIY guides for making tall cardboard scratchers and sisal-covered posts. aMany cat towers come with sisal-covered posts. Our new cat tower (made by Armarkat) is about 6 feet tall and has lots of sisal poles for us to scratch on.

Thomas: So, if you give Bailey lots of opportunities to exercise his hunting instincts in appropriate ways, you shouldn’t have any more trouble with his carpet-mauling episodes.

Bella: Please let us know how things go, Erica. We’d love to hear back from you!