Will Your Cat Be Your Hero? Surprising Ways Cats Protect Their Humans

Introduction

Cats have a reputation for being aloof and independent pets. However, many cat owners believe their cats genuinely care for them and would protect them from harm. According to research here, cats can form close bonds with their human families and exhibit protective behaviors.

Body Language

Cats have several ways of expressing their intention to protect using body language. When feeling threatened, a cat will often arch its back, flatten its ears against the head, and stand with fur raised.1 This posture makes the cat’s body look bigger and intimidating. It’s a warning sign that the cat is feeling defensive. Another protective posture is when the cat crouches down, pulling its body in tight. 2 This makes the cat a smaller target and shows it is prepared to lash out if provoked. Hissing, growling, swatting, and biting are other physical behaviors cats will display to protect themselves or their territory.

Maternal Instinct

Mother cats are extremely protective of their young kittens and will defend them fiercely. This strong maternal instinct kicks in as soon as the kittens are born. According to Kitten Lady, “Mama cats can be fiercely protective of their young, and may attack an animal who gets too close.” (source) For the first 3-4 weeks after giving birth, mother cats experience heightened levels of aggression and protective behaviors to safeguard their vulnerable kittens. As explained by The Spruce Pets, “Feline protective aggression rules queens in the first three to four weeks following the birth of the kittens. This is when the new kittens are most vulnerable.” (source) The maternal aggression usually subsides as the kittens grow older and become more independent. But during those early weeks, mother cats will fiercely defend their babies from any perceived threats, including dogs, other cats, wildlife, and even humans. Their strong protective instinct demonstrates that cats can be defensive of their loved ones when necessary.

Guarding Behavior

Cats often guard or watch over things that are important to them like food, toys, beds, people, etc. This instinctual behavior, called resource guarding, allows cats to protect their valued possessions from threats. Many cats will show guarding behavior towards their food bowl, not letting other pets come near it when eating. They may also guard favorite toys or sleeping spots, becoming possessive when other animals or humans approach these resources. According to an article on herveycats.com, resource guarding arises from a cat’s natural vulnerability about resources. The cat wants to ensure continued access to things it values. While sometimes perceived as aggression, this behavior comes from a place of insecurity. With proper training methods involving choice and positive reinforcement, cats can become less defensive about guarding.

Relationship Bonding

Recent research has shown that cats form close attachments and social bonds with their human families, much like dogs do. According to a 2021 study published in the journal Animal Cognition, cats display secure attachment behaviors towards their owners such as seeking proximity and showing distress when separated (My Cat and Me—A Study of Cat Owner Perceptions of the Human-Pet Relationship). The strength of a cat’s bond with their owner can influence their behavior. A cat that has bonded strongly with their family may demonstrate protective behaviors such as aggression towards strangers, patrolling territory, and alerting owners to potential threats.

Some key factors that facilitate bonding between cats and humans include adopting kittens, frequent positive interactions like play and petting, allowing access to shared spaces like beds and sofas, and responding sensitively to the cat’s signals and needs. A close bond gives cats a sense of security with their families. This attachment may motivate protective behaviors as the cat seeks to guard and defend the people they have become emotionally attached to.

Aggression Towards Threats

Cats are very territorial animals and can show aggression to protect their territory and family members from perceived threats. This protective aggression is most commonly seen in the form of behaviors like swatting, scratching and biting (ASPCA, https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/common-cat-behavior-issues/aggression-cats). Cats may direct this aggressive behavior at other cats, dogs, or even humans that they see as invading their space.

Female cats in particular can become very protective and aggressive after giving birth, displaying what is called maternal aggression. They will fiercely guard their kittens and territory for the first few weeks after birth (Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-behavior-problems-aggression). This maternal instinct to protect their young can lead mother cats to attack perceived threats aggressively.

In general, cats use aggressive behaviors like swatting, scratching and biting as a defensive tactic against intruders. This allows them to protect their territory and family members from harm. While startling for owners, this protective aggression is simply an instinctual behavior hardwired into cats as solitary, territorial animals.

Anecdotal Stories

Some cat owners have shared stories of times their cats protected them in threatening situations. According to one story on https://www.21cats.org/would-my-cat-protect-me-if-i-was-attacked/, a woman’s cat hissed and swiped at an intruder who broke into her home late at night. The cat’s aggressive reaction startled the intruder and allowed the woman to call for help. She credits her cat with protecting her from potential harm.

Another story from https://www.21cats.org/would-my-cat-protect-me-if-i-was-attacked/ involves a man whose cat clawed at a friend who was playfully pretending to attack him as a joke. Even though there was no real threat, the cat perceived the mock attack and immediately tried to defend the owner. The cat scratched the friend’s arm enough to draw blood.

These stories demonstrate how some cats can exhibit protective behavior when they sense their owners are in distress or danger. By hissing, clawing, or showing other forms of aggression, cats may attempt to defend their owners in their own way.

Risk Assessment

Cats are known for being more independent than dogs. While dogs are often eager to please their owners and may put themselves at risk to protect them, cats tend to have a stronger self-preservation instinct. According to research from the University of Connecticut, cats make situational assessments regarding potential risks to themselves before acting aggressively or protectively (https://ovpr.uchc.edu/services/rics/animal/iacuc/ohshome/risk-assessment/cats/).

This means that while a cat may show protective behavior like hissing, arching their backs, swatting, or biting in low-risk situations, they tend to avoid confrontation if they perceive a serious threat that could cause them harm. Their self-preservation limits the risks they’ll take. So while cats can demonstrate protective behavior toward their owners, especially kittens toward their mothers, they likely won’t put themselves in grave danger against a formidable threat.

Training Protection

Some cat training programs claim to train cats to defend and protect their owners. However, the credibility of these claims is questionable. According to an article on Petcarerx, “While cats can certainly exhibit protective behaviors and act as a form of security for their owners, they are not typically trained as guard cats in the way that some breeds of dogs are purposefully bred and trained for protection work.”1 Cats tend to be more independent and aloof than dogs, making them generally unsuitable for formal protection training. While some cats may naturally act protective of their owners if sensing a threat, this behavior cannot be trained in the same systematic way that protection dogs are conditioned. Attempting to force protective behaviors in cats through training risks emotional harm. In general, it is recommended that cat owners have realistic expectations about the protective capacities of their feline companions.

Conclusion

In summary, cats can exhibit protective behaviors towards their owners and families in certain situations. Much of this depends on the cat’s personality, early socialization, bond with their human, and assessment of potential threats. While cats may not be able to physically defend their owners from harm, they can demonstrate affection, concern, and protectiveness through body language, vocalizations, aggression towards intruders, and attachment behaviors. The key takeaway is that a loving, well-socialized cat that has bonded closely with their human caretakers may try to alert, defend, or console them if they sense danger or distress. Though cats may not be traditional “guard animals,” their natural instincts allow them to show their humans loyalty and care when it matters most.

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