Many of us have been taught to grab a cat by the scruff when we need to restrain them, including myself. In fact, this is exactly what I was taught to do in my veterinary technician program. Although long believed to be a harmless way to provide restraint and mimic how a mother cat picks up her kittens, scruffing is actually not a secure way to restrain a cat, and it's also a forceful technique that induces fear and anxiety in most pets.
What Is Scruffing?
Scruffing is a general term for a variety of holds on the skin of the cat's neck. Grasping the scruff of the neck varies from a gentle squeeze of skin to grasping a larger fold of skin with varying amounts of pressure; sometimes it's accompanied by lifting the cat up or heavily restraining the cat in other ways. The theory behind this restraint is that since kittens go limp when their mothers carry them by the scruff, so a tight grip on the loose skin over a cat's shoulders would trigger the same response. But this is not the case. "There is no magical 'limpness' button on a cat's scruff and the analogy of a mother cat carrying her kittens is inaccurate," says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug.
Kittens go limp due to a flexor reflex. This reflex is only present during the first few weeks of the kitten's life. Mother cats grab kittens by their scruff only in the first few weeks of life to transport them. They do not do this to discipline them, which is a common myth. It's important to remember that we, as humans, are not cats: A mother cat knows the precise pressure to place on the skin at the back of the neck and cats have pressure sensors on their teeth, which explains why they have the ability to carry a mouse in their mouths without making a scratch.
What Is the Problem with Scruffing?
Cats are only grabbed by the scruff on their neck in limited circumstances: by their mother during the first few weeks of life, during mating, during fighting, and when they are being attacked by a predator. None of these situations are helpful to mimic in a home, veterinary, or shelter setting. This is because scruffing is more likely to cause fear and stress, which can result in aggressive behavior. Scruffing entirely removes the cat's options to retreat and their sense of control. Cats' territorial instincts and common lack of socialization causes them to become stressed in most situations where they are handled by unfamiliar people in an unfamiliar setting. Scruffing removes the option to retreat and a sense of control for the cat, which commonly results in an escalation of stress, fear, and anxiety. Lifting a cat or suspending their body weight by the scruff is unnecessary and could be painful.
How to Restrain a Cat Without Scruffing
There are many different ways of handling and restraining cats that do not involve scruffing or heavy restraint. The American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and International Cat Care, as well as many cat-only veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists do not recommend scruffing. Instead, they recommend cat-friendly, low stress, and fear free handling techniques. These methods take a "less is more" approach. The handler assesses the cat's body language and uses restraint methods that allow for the cat to hide. This provides the cat with some sense of control over the situation. The handler keeps themselves safe by using towel handling techniques, distractions like food, brushing, and play. At the veterinarian's office, cats rarely prefer to be examined out in the open on a cold, stainless steel exam table. Instead, the cat can be examined where they are most comfortable, like in their owner's lap or inside of the base of their cat carrier.
All cats are individuals. We need to assess the cat's body language and be flexible with handling techniques based on the cat's individual preference. Allow the cat to maintain its chosen position and vary your touch with the cat's response. For example, many people's initial response is to walk up to a cat and immediately scruff the cat while sometimes also physically manipulating them to go on their side. If the cat begins to struggle, hold them down firmly. A better strategy is to approach the cat in a calm and soothing manner, avoiding direct eye contact and frontal approach. Assess your body language: when we are calm, the cat is more likely to be calm too. Assess the cat's body language: if fearful, allow the cat to stay where she is (at the bottom of the carrier, for example) and use a towel to provide a hiding place, lightly swaddling the cat and allowing her to maintain her choose a position (like sitting up).