We’ve all seen it before – a lively, energetic cat turns into a still, quiet creature once the skin on the back of its neck, known as the scruff, is held. But what exactly triggers this sudden change in a cat’s demeanor?
Scruffing a cat often triggers a reflex known as pinch-induced behavioral inhibition or clipnosis, where a cat becomes still or relaxed after squeezing the nape of their neck. This reaction is instinctual and can be traced back to their kittenhood when momma cats mouth-carry their kittens by their neck. Scruff biting is also used by male cats to immobilize female cats before mounting. It is also thought that the release of endorphins may play a role in causing relaxation.
Although scruffing might seem like a convenient way to control a cat, it’s not always perceived as a comfortable experience by the cat and can trigger fear and anxiety. For this reason, pet experts recommend gentler handling methods that are less stressful and promote a better bond between the pet and the owner.
Why Does Scruffing A Cat Paralyze Them? (The Science Behind It)
When a cat is scruffed, several physiological responses can occur, but it is important to note that scruffing does not necessarily paralyze a cat. Instead, it can induce a temporary state of immobility or relaxation. Here’s the science behind it:
1. Pinch-Induced Behavioral Inhibition (PIBI)
The loose skin at the back of a cat’s neck, known as the scruff, is highly sensitive and rich in nerve endings. When a cat is scruffed, gentle pressure is applied to this area, which can trigger a reflex response known as pinch-induced behavioral inhibition, or clipnosis. A study showed that the effect of PIBI in restraining cats declined with age for both male and female cats. Even though scruffing cats is not encouraged for cats of all ages, adult cats have negative responses like fear and stress.
2. Instinctual Response
Scruffing triggers an instinctual response in cats that mimics the behavior of their mothers. Queens often use their mouths to grasp the scruff of their kittens, enabling them to carry them safely. Kittens typically become passive and immobile in this position. During mating, tomcats often bite female cats’ necks to keep them still.
3. Neurological Response
Scruffing stimulates the nerves in the scruff area, sending signals to the brain, just like in a massage. This stimulation can trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, which are associated with pain relief and relaxation. The cat may experience a temporary reduction in muscle tone and a decrease in overall responsiveness.
Scruffing should be done with care, using gentle pressure, and only for short durations. It is generally recommended to avoid scruffing unless it is necessary for medical procedures or the cat’s safety, and it should never be done forcefully or as a form of discipline.
Do Cats Like Getting Scruffed?
For kittens, this act can be accepted and not problematic because their lightweight bodies can comfortably hang without causing pain or discomfort. Mother cats have a gentle but firm grip that induces a passive state in the kitten, a behavior that’s instinctive and intended to keep kittens safe and in check. This natural response can create an illusion that kittens enjoy or at least don’t mind being scruffed, which is why many pet owners assume it’s a harmless act.
However, as cats grow older and heavier, scruffing can cause undue stress and anxiety. Female cats experience this anxious feeling especially during mating because their male companions use it to keep them in check. An adult cat’s weight is much more substantial, and its body isn’t designed to be suspended by the scruff. When held in this way, their hind legs instinctively start paddling, a behavior that signals discomfort and stress. This discomfort can quickly escalate into fear and anxiety, which can then affect the cat’s behavior and relationship with its owner.
Instead of scruffing, owners should employ other methods to safely handle their cats. For instance, supporting their body and legs while carrying them or using gentle restraints when necessary for procedures like administering medication can be much more comfortable for the cat.
Why You Should Never Scruff A Cat?
Scruffing a cat can have negative consequences and should generally be avoided. Here are some of the consequences:
When a cat is scruffed, it can lead to psychological trauma, especially if done roughly or without a proper understanding of how much pressure to apply. Cats perceive their environment differently than humans and scruffing could be interpreted as an attack, causing a traumatic experience. This could lead to behavioral changes, such as increased fear or avoidance of people.
These reactions may not be immediate, and signs of trauma might only become evident over time. Therefore, it’s crucial to avoid potential sources of trauma, like scruffing, to ensure the well-being of your cat.
Scruffing can cause physical pain to adult cats. As they mature, their bodies become heavier and the loose skin on the back of their neck is not designed to bear their full weight. When lifted by the scruff, their body hangs in an unnatural position, straining their neck and spine.
Over time, this could lead to injuries or chronic pain. Just like humans, cats can experience distress from physical pain, which can negatively impact their overall quality of life.
Being scruffed can cause anxiety in cats. When lifted or restrained by the scruff, they are unable to escape or control their situation. This lack of control can lead to a state of anxiety which can result in an anxious temperament as time progresses, where the cat may be in constant fear or stress, anticipating another scruffing incident. This constant state of unease can seriously harm a cat’s mental and physical health.
Lack Of Trust
Trust is a fundamental element in the relationship between a cat and its owner. When cats are scruffed, they may start associating their owners with the negative experience. This association can lead to a breakdown of trust. Cats who don’t trust their humans can become withdrawn, refusing to play or interact. This lack of trust can be difficult to rebuild and may permanently damage the bond between the cat and its owner.
Cats that have been scruffed may start to exhibit signs of excessive aggression. The physical discomfort and anxiety from being scruffed can cause them to become defensive, displaying aggressive behaviors such as hissing, swatting, or biting.
These behaviors are a cat’s natural defense mechanisms, and if they’re triggered too often, they may become habitual, leading to a cat that’s consistently on edge and ready to lash out.
Cats are very good at forming associations. If they associate being scruffed with a negative experience, they may also link that experience with the person doing the scruffing. This can lead to negative behaviors like avoidance or aggression when approached by that individual, even in non-threatening situations. In turn, this can make routine tasks like grooming or administering medication much more difficult.
Fear is a powerful emotion in cats, and being scruffed can induce fear. A cat being lifted by its scruff is essentially helpless, triggering a fear response. This can lead to a “fight or flight” reaction, with the cat either becoming aggressive or attempting to hide or run away.
Living in a constant state of fear can have serious effects on a cat’s mental and physical health, and can lead to issues like weight loss, changes in behavior, and increased susceptibility to illness.
Alternatives To Picking Up A Cat By The Scruff
It is generally recommended to avoid picking up adult cats by scruff, especially if you are not experienced in doing so. Several alternative methods are safer and more comfortable for the cat:
1. Supportive Lift
The supportive lift is an ideal method for picking up a cat, especially larger or adult cats. To do this, one hand should go under the cat’s chest, just behind the front legs, providing support to the upper body. The other hand should be placed under the cat’s hindquarters, ensuring the whole body is adequately supported. This lift allows the cat’s weight to be evenly distributed, which is much more comfortable for the cat. Remember to always hold the cat close to your body to prevent it from squirming or feeling insecure.
The supportive lift not only provides physical comfort but can also help in building trust. When the cat feels secure and comfortable in your arms, it is more likely to trust you and be at ease with being handled.
2. Two-Handed Hold
The two-handed hold is another gentle method to pick up your cat. This method involves kneeling or crouching to the cat’s level and placing one hand behind the front legs and the other just under the hindquarters.
Like the supportive lift, this method ensures the cat’s weight is evenly distributed, which is much more comfortable for the cat. Lift the cat smoothly and hold them close to your body to provide a sense of security.
3. Towel Wrap
A towel wrap, often referred to as a “cat burrito,” is a technique where a cat is wrapped securely in a towel. This method is particularly useful when you need to handle your cat for medication or nail trims, and it doesn’t feel comfortable being held. To create a cat burrito, lay the towel on a flat surface, place the cat on top of the towel, and gently wrap the towel around the cat, leaving its head exposed. Be sure not to wrap too tightly; the goal is to limit the cat’s movements, not restrict them.
The towel wrap method can provide a sense of security for anxious cats.
4. Carrier Or Pet Bed
Using a pet carrier or a pet bed to move your cat is another non-invasive method. Instead of picking up your cat, encourage it to go into the carrier or onto the pet bed by itself. You can use treats, toys, or catnip to coax your cat into the carrier or bed. Once your cat is inside, you can lift the carrier or bed, with the cat inside, to transport it.
This method eliminates the need to physically handle the cat, which can be beneficial for cats that don’t like to be picked up.
How To Discipline A Cat Properly/Without Scruffing?
Disciplining a cat is an important part of their training and development. However, it’s important to note that cats respond best to positive reinforcement rather than punishment. Disciplining a cat should focus on redirecting its behavior and providing appropriate alternatives. Here are some effective methods for disciplining a cat without resorting to scruffing or physical punishment:
1. Use Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement techniques, such as clicker training can be used to teach cats to cooperate voluntarily. Reward your cat for good behavior with treats, praise, or playtime. Positive reinforcement encourages cats to repeat desired behaviors, making it an effective training method.
2. Redirect Undesirable Behavior
Instead of punishing your cat for engaging in unwanted behavior, redirect their attention to an appropriate alternative. For example, if your cat is scratching the furniture, provide a scratching post nearby and encourage them to use it.
3. Use Deterrents
Cats dislike certain scents and textures. Use deterrents like citrus sprays, double-sided tape, or aluminum foil on surfaces you want your cat to avoid. These can discourage them from engaging in unwanted behaviors.
4. Create A Safe Space
Provide a designated area where your cat can retreat when they need some alone time or feel overwhelmed. This can be a separate room with a cozy bed, toys, and a litter box. Giving them a safe space can help prevent stress-related behavior issues.
5. Ignore Attention-Seeking Behavior
If your cat is engaging in attention-seeking behavior, such as meowing excessively or jumping on countertops, it’s best to ignore them rather than reinforce the behavior with attention. Wait until they are calm and then provide positive reinforcement for desired behavior.
6. Be Consistent
Consistency is crucial when disciplining a cat. Set clear boundaries and rules, and make sure everyone in the household follows them. Cats thrive in a predictable environment where they know what is expected of them.
Remember, discipline should always be gentle and focused on guiding your cat toward appropriate behavior. It’s essential to establish a bond of trust and respect with your cat by using positive reinforcement, patience, and consistency.
Do All Cats Respond To Scruffing?
It is important to note that not all cats respond positively to scruffing, and its effectiveness can vary depending on the individual cat and the situation. While scruffing may be effective for some cats, it is not a universal solution for all feline companions.
Some cats may become more relaxed or subdued when scruffed, while others may show aggression by attempting to scratch or bite just to avoid the situation.
Positive reinforcement techniques, such as clicker training also known as mark and reward can be used to teach cats to cooperate voluntarily for various procedures, such as nail trims or veterinary examinations.
It is always recommended to consult with a veterinarian or a professional cat behaviorist to determine the most appropriate and effective techniques for handling your particular cat.
Do Cats Like Being Squished?
Just like people, cats have their unique personalities and preferences. Some cats enjoy the sensation of being ‘squished,’ or held closely and snuggly, interpreting it as a form of close bonding and security. This type of cat might love curling up on your lap under a heavy blanket or pushing against you in bed. This close physical contact can make them feel safe, loved, and comfortable.
However, not all cats appreciate this form of interaction. Some cats may tolerate being held or cuddled for short periods but would rather not be squished. For these cats, they might accept the contact for a while, appreciating the affection, but become uneasy or try to wriggle away when it becomes too much. It’s important to watch for signs of discomfort such as squirming, tail lashing, flattened ears, or growling. If your cat shows any of these signs, it’s best to give them some space.
Lastly, some cats value their personal space highly and do not enjoy being squished or held at all. These cats would rather interact with their owners on their terms, such as rubbing against their legs or sitting next to them, but not on them. It’s crucial to respect their boundaries and avoid forcing physical contact, as doing so could lead to stress or fear.
While scruffing is a method used by queens on their kittens, in adult cats, this act can cause a significant amount of stress, fear, and even physical discomfort. It’s important to remember that what works in the animal kingdom doesn’t always translate well into our domestic environments.
Alternatives to scruffing, such as the supportive lift, two-handed hold, towel wrap, or using a pet carrier or bed, provide cat-friendly options for handling our feline friends. These techniques prioritize the comfort and safety of cats and help cultivate an environment of trust and respect. They enable us to interact with our cats in a way that aligns with their natural behaviors and preferences, reducing the risk of fear, anxiety, or discomfort.
Shifting from scruffing to these alternatives can significantly improve the well-being of our companions, fostering a more positive, trusting, and loving relationship with them. After all, our pets are family members, and they deserve to be handled with kindness, care, and respect.