Why does my cat attack my feet? Expert shares 6 reasons and how to stop this

Cat and feet
(Image credit: Getty Images/YuriF)

If you find yourself wondering, ‘Why does my cat attack my feet?’ you’re not alone. 

Even if they have the best cat toys to play with, it’s likely that your kitty can’t resist pouncing on your toes when they spot them wiggling under the bed covers. Or perhaps they hide behind the furniture and stealthily ambush your ankles every time you walk past. From affectionate nibbles to claw-raking bunny kicks, feline foot attacks can be confounding and painful! 

That’s why we asked Amanda Campion, a clinical animal behaviorist, to explain the different motivations for this undesirable behavior. She has worked with cats and their caregivers for many years, using her detective skills to find out what their problems are.

We also investigate what you should do if your cat attacks your feet and the strategies you can put in place to help prevent it from happening again. 

Amanda Campion holding a cat and smiling
Amanda Campion CAB

Practicing as a full clinical animal behaviorist member, Amanda's passion is cats -helping to correct all their quirky unwanted issues, anxiety, and stresses that can manifest from time to time. Amanda has worked alongside charities for many years, helping rehabilitate cats from surrender and euthanasia. She previously had her own cattery, fostering and rehabilitating traumatized shelter cats, enabling them to go in to have happy lives with their new owners. She loves engaging with the cat caregivers and deciphering what problems they are having, as well as using her detective skills to find out what the cats’ problems are. As a CAB, she assists with a wide range of feline behaviors but the most rewarding to her is to see a previously traumatized or anxious cat start to trust again which is life-changing for the cat.

Why does my cat attack my feet?

Why does my cat attack my feet? Does it all come down to instinct? You may be surprised to discover that launching an attack on your feet could be a sign of affection, a playful invitation or a warning that your cat is bored, frustrated, fearful or even in pain. Here are all the reasons: 

1. Hunting instincts 

It’s a common misperception that cats only hunt to satisfy their hunger. Even if you’re feeding your feline friend the best kitten food or the best cat food, they will still display predatory behaviors - stalking, chasing, pouncing, kicking, scratching and biting anything that resembles prey. 

“They may perceive moving feet as prey-like stimuli, leading to playful attacks, as they are innately programmed to find movement a call to action,” explains Campion. 

Cats are hardwired to respond to auditory and visual stimulation that mimics the sudden movements and scuttling sounds of rodents in the undergrowth, so, when your kitty hears your feet shuffling on the floor or moving around under a blanket, their immediate instinct is to launch an attack. 

Feet are the perfect size to mimic small mammal prey and are particularly attractive when you wear fluffy socks or fuzzy slippers that resemble fur. 

Cat biting a foot with a sock on it

(Image credit: Getty Images/Oleg Opryshko)

2. They’re bored

Cats are curious and playful animals, requiring mental and physical stimulation to keep them emotionally and behaviorally healthy.

 “When cats lack mental stimulation or sufficient play opportunities, they may resort to attacking feet out of boredom,” says Campion. “Providing environmental enrichment, interactive toys, and regular play sessions can help alleviate this behavior by keeping them mentally and physically engaged.” 

Discover more tips for keeping your feline companion entertained in our article Is your cat bored?

 
3.
They’re trying to play with you

When cats pounce on feet it’s often a playful gesture rather than a display of hostility. It’s common for kittens and young cats to stalk, ambush and swat, bunny-kick and bite each other during rough play, so your cat may be attacking your feet in an attempt to initiate play with you. 

Cat play is crucial, as stalking, pouncing, batting and bunny-kicking toys encourages kittens and cats to exercise, engage their brains and explore their environment. 

Hunting activity also releases endorphins - feel-good hormones which help reduce stress and improve wellbeing. “In the absence of natural hunting opportunities cats kept solely indoors may perceive moving feet as prey,” warns Campion, so learning how to entertain indoor cats is particularly important.  

Ginger cat playing with a toy

(Image credit: Getty Images/Elizabeth Livermore)

4. Attention-seeking

Attacking your feet can also be a way for your cat to solicit your attention and communicate their needs, letting you know that they are hungry, would like to go outside, or are craving interaction and affection. 

Campion warns, “Frustration in these circumstances can escalate if the cat’s needs are not met, leading to repetitive attacks.” She advises, “Caregivers should observe for signs of frustration such as vocalization, pacing and restlessness.”

5. They’re anxious or fearful 

When cats are feeling anxious or fearful, they often resort to instinctual behaviors to communicate their discomfort and protect themselves. Our feet are often the closest body part to them, making them obvious targets. 

Humans move unpredictably and a stressed cat may perceive sudden movement as a potential threat and react defensively, lashing out to warn us to keep our distance. 

“Cats experiencing anxiety, fear, or stress may exhibit redirected aggression towards caregivers,” say Campion. “To reduce the likelihood of aggressive behavior it’s crucial to identify and address the source of the stress, whether it’s a new environment, unfamiliar visitors, conflict with other animals in or outside of the home environment, or pain.” 

Cat bites person's finger

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6. They’re in pain

If your furry friend suddenly starts attacking your feet, it could be a warning sign that they are in pain. Diseases like osteoarthritis, dental disease and hyperthyroidism may cause a usually calm and friendly cat to display aggressive behavior towards their caregiver in an attempt to avoid being touched or moved. 

Campion explains, “In these cases, aggression serves as a distance-increasing signal to prevent further discomfort. Caregivers should monitor for signs of pain, such as reluctance to be touched, changes in grooming habits, reduced appetite, lethargy or decreased interest in play and social interaction, and seek veterinary attention promptly.” 

How to stop a cat from biting feet

Thankfully, there are practical strategies you can implement to stop your feline companion from biting your feet and reduce the likelihood of them becoming targets in the future. 

1. Ignore 

A sudden attack on your feet can come as a shock and scratches and bites are often painful.

Your first instinct is likely to shriek, shout at your cat or try to shake them off but Campion warns, “When attacks occur, it’s important to refrain from reacting dramatically, as this can inadvertently reinforce the behavior. Instead, calmly withdraw attention and cease play to discourage any further aggression. Don’t vocalize, remain still and, if possible, shift your body position away from your cat.” 

Behavior change may take time, particularly if you’ve been tolerating foot attacks for weeks or months, so Campion advises, “Be aware that these attacks may occur and make sure you are ready to distract and protect yourself from injuries by wearing thick socks and footwear in the short term while the rehearsal of this learned behavior starts to dwindle.”

Cat lying next to feet

(Image credit: Getty Images/Kryssia Campos)

2. Play with your cat

If you schedule regular play sessions with the best interactive cat toys your cat is less likely to attack your feet. 

“Interactive play sessions with wand toys should mimic the movements of different prey to stimulate your cat’s natural hunting instincts," advises Campion. 

Erratic stop-start movements across the floor or underneath a sheet of crinkly paper mimic rodent prey, while and swooping aerial movements mimic a bird or insect in flight.

Campion continues, “Aim to incorporate multiple short, intense play sessions throughout the day, each lasting around 10 to 15 minutes and always end on a positive ‘win’, letting your cat catch the toy to prevent overstimulation and frustration.”

Cat toy

(Image credit: Getty Images)

 3. Re-direct them to a toy

It’s important that you don’t punish your cat if they attack your feet, as punishment can cause anxiety, fear, and damage their bond with you.

Campion advises, “Redirecting play to appropriate toys reinforces positive behavior and teaches cats that biting feet is not acceptable. Offering a variety of toys that mimic natural prey can keep them engaged and satisfied. Be sure to rotate these toys and activities on a daily basis to prevent boredom.”

If you know your cat is likely to jump out from behind the couch or under the bed and attack your feet, pre-empt the behavior by tossing a toy on the floor for them to chase before you walk past.

Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound Buggin' Out Puzzle & Play Cat Toy

Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound Buggin' Out Puzzle & Play Cat Toy

There's a reason why this was voted as the 'best puzzle' in our cat toy guide, and it's sure to keep your kitty mentally stimulated. Our tester praised how durable and high-quality it is, and noted that it's perfect for beginners. 

4. Provide feeding enrichment

Like their African wildcat ancestor, a domestic cat’s natural feeding pattern involves spending up to 12 hours a day hunting, catching and consuming prey, so if your feline companion doesn’t have the opportunity to hunt, they may misdirect predatory behavior towards you.

Campion suggests introducing puzzle feeders, explaining, “They encourage cats to engage in natural hunting behaviors while providing mental stimulation and slowing down mealtimes. By dispersing food throughout the environment, caregivers can promote physical activity and prevent boredom-related foot attacks. Your cat can learn to forage for their food and feeding times can be fun for you and your cat, so ‘bin the bowl’!”

Keen to enrich your feline friend’s playtime? We have suggestions for the best games to play with cats. If your kitty is scratching and biting you when you’re supposed to be having fun, we’ve investigated how to stop cat play aggression. 

Claire Stares

Claire Stares is a freelance writer and book author. She holds a BA (Hons) in English and a MA in Creative Writing and is currently enrolled on the MSc Clinical Animal Behavior program at the University of Edinburgh. Claire has a particular interest in feline behavior, welfare, and training, and holds an International Cat Care Certificate in Advanced Feline Behavior for Cat Professionals and a Diploma in Feline Health and Welfare. She has completed the ILLIS Animal Behaviour Courses Advanced Animal Training course and the Karen Pryor Academy Train Your Cat course. 

She shares her home with six cats and volunteers for a cat welfare charity, so is passionate about exploring the ways in which cat guardians can use positive reinforcement training and environmental enrichment to facilitate cooperative care, prevent problem behaviors, improve cats’ quality of life, and strengthen the cat-human bond.