No doubt you've seen the video of Tara the cat saving her human family member, a young toddler boy, from being mauled by a neighbor's dog. The feat is truly amazing; however, is it rare or abnormal? And was Tara truly protecting the boy?
Why would a cat take on a dog with no concern for its own life? While cats do tend to run from trouble, anyone who works in a veterinary hospital knows that when they're scared, they can look like they are almost possessed. Most veterinarians who focus on behavior have seen their share of cases where a cat has been scared or agitated by something when the owners are away. And then when the owners get home, the cat, in his highly fearful state, attacks his own family members, causing them to sequester themselves in a room until the cat has calmed down or until animal control can arrive to rescue them.
In fact, one similar case occurred recently and made the headlines along with the related 911 call. In this case, an overweight agitated cat was picking on the family infant and the owners kicked or pushed the cat away to protect the child. Whether the cat was already in a high-arousal attack mode when going after the baby, or whether he was just moody and agitated such that any poking would cause him to go over the edge is unclear. But what is clear is that he turned apparently psycho for a prolonged period causing the family -- including the dog -- to hide in a room and call 911. The fact that the cat ran and hid when the police arrived does suggest that the cat was fearful, at least of the police. And not just in need of anger management skills.
Based on this knowledge of cat behavior, a likely cause of Tara's aggression is that she was nearby, saw the high threat, got scared or agitated and was protecting herself and her territory. This type of behavior is not that rare. For instance, when I used to walk several miles with my dog to work in San Francisco, we'd pass a business warehouse owned by a cat. Or so the cat thought. The cat would appear in the narrow doorway at the top of a five-step staircase and hiss and posture like he was auditioning for Halloween even when we over 10 feet away. Sometimes, if she was on the ground level instead of on the stairs, she would slowly drift closer with murder in her eyes. My trained Jack Russell terrier focused on me and acted as if he didn't even notice her; but if he had stared, lunged or barked aggressively, no doubt that would have caused the switch to flip, leading the cat to go into full Hitchcock mode.
The fact that Tara followed and adopted her human family five years ago and is both outgoing and confident, so much so that she wasn't even phased by a TV crew in her house, may put her even higher on the list for protecting her territory from the scruffy dogs.
Is there any chance that Tara could have been purposely protecting the boy? If Tara is highly bonded to the child as indicated by spending large amounts of time with the child, and if she exhibits maternal behavior to the child (such as grooming), then it's possible she saw the child as her kitten of sorts, and the dog experienced the wrath of a mom protecting her young. It's just not that likely.
One thing is true; however, Tara loves her family and her family loves her. And her behaviors saved a little boy from a much more severe attack.
For more information on raising a well socialized, loving kitten, read Kitten Socialization.
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