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Why you shouldn’t pick up your cat by the scruff of the neck

Hand scruffing cat's neck

Scruffing a cat: what is it, and why you shouldn't do it?

© Victoras - Shutterstock

Scruffing a cat is a practice that was inspired by the mother cat’s behaviour when she grabs her kittens by the neck to restrain them. Well this is a myth! Scruffing causes fear, stress and anxiety and isn’t recommended.

By Emilie Heyl

Published on the 01/08/2021, 17:00

Despite their small size, cats can be scary sometimes. They can easily injure us with their claws or teeth. So when it comes to giving a cat medicine, it can get pretty complicated right? We usually wait for the feline to be sleepy, then we approach him...slowly… and grab him by the neck. Big mistake! 

While many people grab their cat by the neck to either avoid injury, discourage bad behaviour or restrain the animal, this technique called scruffing, is actually traumatising for the cat. Fortunately, there are more effective and kind ways to handle your cat. Find out why it isn’t recommended to scruff your pet.

What is scruffing?

Scruffing is a general term which describes a variety of holds on the skin of a cat’s neck (called scruff). Therefore, when scruffing a cat, this means that you take the skin on the back of the cat’s neck into your hands and you hold it.

Many cat owners have been told to grab a cat by the scruff of the neck to restrain a cat, discourage bad behaviour and avoid injury when administering medication. Some veterinarians also use this technique. Although it was long believed that scruffing was a mimic of how a mother cat picks up her kittens, it is actually not a secure way to restrain a cat and it also induces fear and anxiety in most felines.

Wondering how to communicate with an anxious cat? Veterinarian gives away a few of her special tips

When and why are cats scruffed?

When scruffing a cat, you remove the cat’s sense of control and ability to retreat which commonly results in an escalation of stress, fear and anxiety. Now, with that being said, you might think: “But I’ve seen a cat that has been scruffed before…” and yes, indeed, it can happen. Cats are scruffed: during the first few weeks of life by their mother, during mating, fighting and when attacked by a predator.

1. When kitten: A cat mum grabs its kitten by the scruff of its neck only in the first weeks of the kitten’s life to transport them. Indeed, kittens have a flexor reflex only present during the first few weeks of their life, and this is why they go limp when their mum picks them up. The mother cat knows exactly the pressure to put on the skin at the back of the neck. Also, it’s a common myth to think that a mother cat does this to discipline their babies. 

2. When attacked by a predator: If a cat is attacked by a predator, most of the time, they’ll be grabbed by the scruff of their neck.

3. When cats mate: During mating, a male cat will mount the female from the rear and hold her by the scruff of her neck. The male cat does this for three reasons: immobilises the female cat, provides proper orientation for mounting and defends himself because female cats often attack during mating. It can actually be painful for a female cat to mate because male cats are covered with small keratinized spines that help them to stimulate ovulation.

4. When cats fight: When cats fight, they could bite and scruff the neck to restrain other cats or to defend themselves.

It sounds like most of the reasons why a cat is being grabbed by the neck are very stressful and aren’t helpful to mimic at home, at the vet or in a shelter. Scruffing a cat could lead to aggressive behaviour.

Can you hurt a cat by scruffing it?

Grabbing a cat by the skin, lifting him or suspending their body weight by the scruff is unnecessary and could be painful for the feline. It all depends on how you grab the scruff of your cat’s neck, but yes, it could hurt your animal. Not only that, it causes fear and stress, and therefore could result in aggressive behaviour. Your cat could be scared of you and that wouldn’t be good for your relationship.

Do cats like being scruffed?

Whether it's to restrain a cat, catch him or keep him from moving, many owners and veterinarians grab cats by the scruff. This technique, which aims to protect our hands (and other body parts) from any cat attack, is far from being harmless for the animal. This method causes great stress or even a state of panic in the cat. The consequence is that over time your cat is likely to become aggressive. Even if this method is only used very occasionally, it can have a negative impact on your cat. So you shouldn’t do it!

How to restrain a cat without scruffing?

An American scientist, Sophia Yin, has developed positive methods to handle animals during a veterinary consultation. She talks about "pet friendly" methods, that is to say, methods that are gentle and won’t stress the animal. For example, to handle a cat, veterinarians wrap the animal in a towel. The cat then feels contained and protected (at least, from a cat's point of view!). The care can therefore be provided with much more gentleness. These “pet friendly” techniques significantly reduce the stress on the animal during consultations. You can of course use these methods at home on a daily basis. You will have a good cat in his paws! There are also establishments with a "cat friendly" or even "dog friendly" label . These clinics use gentle methods that respect the animal when it is taken care of by the nursing staff.

Another strategy to get close to a cat is in a calm and soothing manner, avoiding eye contact and a frontal approach. Always assess the cat’s body language, allow the animal to stay where it is, use a towel to provide a hidden spot or to comfort the animal and let the cat choose a position. 

Communicating and understanding is key to create a trusting relationship with your cat. Most of the time, bad behaviour is a way for your cat to tell you something is wrong, learn how to listen.