Who, What, Why: How dangerous can domestic cats be?

In his call to emergency services, the man said the cat had a history of violence

A pet cat with a "history of violence" attacked a baby before trapping a family and dog in a room. How much of a threat are house-trained felines to the human population?

Lux, a 10kg (22lbs) black-and-white Himalayan, scratched a seven-month-old baby in the face, according to police in Portland, Oregon, USA. When the child's father Lee Palmer struck the four-year-old animal on the rear in retaliation, it began charging at the family, forcing them to take refuge in their bedroom. "He's very, very, very, very hostile," Palmer told an operator in a panicked 911 call, during which Lux could be heard screeching in the background. Palmer added that his pet had a "history of violence".

The answer

  • It's rare for cats to act aggressively towards humans unless they have gone feral or feel under attack

"It's extremely rare for a domestic cat to behave like this", says John Bradshaw, founder of the Anthrozoology Institute at Bristol University and author of Cat Sense. With more than 80 million pet cats in the US, the exceptional nature of the case suggests that Lux "has a screw loose", he adds. If a kitten doesn't encounter a human in a friendly context between the ages of three to eight weeks, it is more liable to go feral. A cornered feral cat "will bite, it will scratch, but it's not a fight to the death - it won't come back to finish you off", Bradshaw says. "Cats are never aggressive for no reason," says Sarah Ellis, an expert in cat behaviour at the University of Lincoln. "It is our duty to protect cats from feeling fearful of us by ensuring they have the appropriate early socialisation."

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It's birds and small rodents which have most to fear from cats' hunting instincts. Some breeds are more aggressive than others. Bengal cats - a cross-breed of domestic cats and Asian leopard cats - have a reputation for attacking cats in neighbouring houses, says Bradshaw. By contrast, he says, Persians and Siamese cats have typically forgotten how to be good hunters. Usually a cat will scratch or bite a human who is being too persistent in stroking it. The cat will lash out because it thinks it is being held down. Instead, Bradshaw suggests paying attention to a cat's body language is usually the best way to avoid ending up on the wrong side of its claws.

Reporting by Jon Kelly

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