OUCH! Why Do Cats Chase Feet?

Karma-Kat thinks my legs are move-able scratching posts. He’s a living, breathing example why cats chase feet.

Seren-Kitty, when she was alive, also enjoyed targeting toes, but since she only weighed 6 pounds, at most we endured a furry ankle decoration. With big cats like Karma (15+ pounds!), when cats chase feet it can be a dangerous tripping hazard.
why cats chase feet

Why Cats Chase Feet?

Karma-Kitten does this. He even does it to Magical-Dawg. When Seren was young, she also targeted my feet and ankles. Do they really want to maim us, or worse: trip us on the stairway so we’ll break our necks? Do cats have mayhem in mind?

Even when they outgrow the “attack phase” at around 9 months of age that characterizes kitten play aggression (yes, folks, it’s NORMAL!), cats still have an affinity for feet. Recently I had a question from someone asking if our cats tried to “herd” us by winding between our feet as we walked? That gave me visions of packs of Border Collie Kitties. Hmnn, now there’s a project for some ingenious YouTube green screen folks to create!

Do your cats chase feet? What in the kitty-world is going on? No, it’s not malicious or psychotic or vicious or any of those other labels we humans love to attach. Again, it’s normal, and has to do with several things either separately or in combination.

CATS CHASE FEET BECAUSE OF HUNTING INSTINCT

As hunters, cats’ hunting behavior evolved to be prompted by different stimuli. That’s a survival mechanism that triggers pounce-and-attack to put food on the feline table. Several things trigger the urge to hunt–and the cats chase feet instinct.

Sound, such as the ultrasonic mouse squeaks can stimulate attack. Scent is also important especially to stimulate appetite, but cats don’t have to be hungry to hunt. They have to take advantage of every opportunity and not give that mousy morsel a pass, just because their tummy is full. So other senses are more important to trigger predatory behaviors. And let’s face it, chasing feet qualifies as prey to kitten-hunters.

Sight rules in terms of kitty attack triggers. Think about it: the motion of our feet walking is at kitty eye level (prey location!), and the continued movement self-rewards the cat’s interaction. Couch Potato Puss has no real prey, so makes do with surrogates. It’s just FUN for the cat to chase/tag/play with our feet and ankles. And the more you squeal and try to shake ’em off (like prey), the more the cat’s hunting engine revs.

But the behavior can go on for other reasons.

“YOU BELONG TO ME!”

Again, cats are all about territory and location is important. The eye-level location of our ankles/feet as well as what they represent–the human they adore–makes ankles/feet prime kitty marking targets. It’s hard for the cat to reach other body parts with any regularity, but our tootsies are always within paw-and-cheek reach.

Cats mark important owned territory with cheek rubs, body rubs, tail winding, etc. When they wind around our feet and ankles, this leaves scent marks that you are important and owned by them–a huge feline compliment. A common time at our house for both Seren-Kitty and Karma-Kitten to indulge in this body-rub-fest is right after the humans get out of the shower. That makes scent sense because a shower or bath washes off all the important “family smell” that identifies you as safe and known. The cats need to refresh these marks to feel all warm-and-fuzzy-friendly.

IT’S YOUR FAULT CATS CHASE FEET!

Hey, the cats made me say that! They’re always MEOWING about something. But there’s truth to the statement. If you hate having the cat(s) constantly underfoot, take a step back (carefully, LOL!) to see what YOU do when this happens. It could be that you’re actually rewarding the behavior and reinforcing it, so the cats continue to target your feet.

Cats are very easily trained. It only takes one or two repetitions for them to connect-the-dots and say, “Hey, if I do THIS, then my human does THAT!” And if your cat happens to like THAT (a scream, you jumping around, picking them up, filling the food bowl, opening the door, giving ATTENTION) that can reward the cats chase feet behavior. Remember that even bad attention is sometimes better than being ignored. (I suspect parents of two-legged kids will agree with that, too.) As I said, cats are very easily trained, but they’re even better trainers of us humans. Ahem.

Your Turn: How do YOU Stop Cats Chasing Feet?

complete kitten care bookSo how do you manage your ankle-rubbing/biting-kitties? Right now, we’re just watching our step–literally–and stopping in place until Karma moves on. No motion makes feet less attractive and doesn’t reward paw-grapples. Because once the behavior is ingrained, it’s even more difficult to stop. Prevent the cats chase feet behavior before it starts.

There’s lots more fun info and tips for your rambunctious kitties in COMPLETE KITTEN CARE (and you can “hear” me in the Audio version, too!)

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  1. We’re still working on an anomaly from about a month ago that has never happened before or since. Anubis does occasionally go into play mode and jump for feet, but usually it’s a chomp-and-run. We had one where we were just sitting on the couch, cat runs by and jumps at J’s feet, then bites in and just starts SHAKING it. It was a bit of a fight to get him off. He has never done that when playing. We can’t think of anything nearby that might have made him think something was after us to have him mistakenly chomp a foot in defense or something (and to me it looked more like a move to defend something than an attack on prey, just the particular way the body movements were going – really kind of hard for me to explain what I mean here). The only thing we can figure was, since we found out later he was having some tummy troubles (lots of hairballs this winter, it’s been awful on him) was maybe it hurt just at the moment he was walking by, since the attack came on so suddenly.

    Either way it hasn’t happened since then.

  2. Haven’t been online much lately but I had to write about my experience here. Mewdy BLue used to wrap himself around my ankles whenever I got one of the stick toys out to play with all the cats at once. All the others raced around chasing the toy but Mewdy Blue claimed my ankles and hung on while swatting at the toy. Guess he was claiming his personal space 🙂

    • Boris Kitty, that’s absolutely true at our house especially from the “new kid” Karma. He’s only about 7 months old and finds footsie-tag a great game!

  3. I used to joke that tripping humans was bored indoor cats trying to add excitement to their lives, not realizing that those with only one human might lose their home if their human was injured too badly. Ours have all gotten tired of me explaining it all to them….

    • Awww…yes, that can happen. Also, some humans have very fragile skin and just a small scratch or nibble can be very painful and lead to dangerous infection. *sigh* Wish we could explain more clearly to our cats!

  4. Oh yes I can relate to this. Cheek and body rubs. I see 2 year old Termite cheek rubbing the bathroom door facings every day and of course he is still the designated potty partner escort. Termite usually sleeps between my feet and comes 20-30 minutes after I go to bed. He has woke me up during the night after my feet, especially my big toe. I try and stay as stiff as a board so I won’t be attacked. Being diabetic I must be very careful. Adding additional info from above to your ComPETability: Cats book would be great!

  5. We are elderly and adore our cat Mitty. But she winds herself around our feet and I am afraid she might cause us to fall. How can we break her of this habit?

    • Hi Bonnie. Many cats do this, not just Mitty (love the name, by the way!). One thing you can do is find something Mitty really likes–a treat, a long distance toy?–and have that always available in your pocket. When Mitty approaches, BEFORE she makes contact with your feet, toss the toy/treat out ahead of you. Once she makes contact, DO NOT give her the toy or treat…you want her to eventually learn that she’ll earn a reward by ignoring your feet. It can take quite a bit of time, so be patient. But then, you (and Mitty) are worth it, right? *s*

  6. I recently adopted 6 month old “Pi” from the shelter and love her dearly. She id a very affectionate and outgoing Calico, but when it is time to eat she seems to think she is going to starve to death if she does not force me to the food bag by winding in and out of my feet. She has never attacked or bitten them at all fortunately, but I have nearly fallen a few times when she is winding around them. I will usually just hook a foot under her and slide her out from me on the tile or hardwood floor….not a lick and not any force, but seems to give her the idea that she needs to stay out from under if she wants to be fed. That is beginning to work, along with stopping in my tracks when it first starts. If my progress toward the food stops, she seems to realize that her behavior is not accomplishing her goal.

    • Hi Vicki, That’s an excellent way to handle the issue. By stopping your movement when she gets underfoot, she realizes SHE controls your movement–and must get out of the way if you’re to read the food. Smart kitty! And smart human! Thanks for stopping by the blog.

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