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Why Does a Cat Go Limp When You Grab Their Scruff? Vet-Approved Facts

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By Misty Layne

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Ashley Darby

Veterinarian, BVSc

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Cat parents see a lot of interesting behavior from their cats (like running up the walls during crazy cat time or knocking things off a shelf for no reason). One of the more common feline behaviors happens when a cat is grabbed by the scruff, the extra skin found on the back of the neck. What happens? They go limp!

Why does a cat go limp when you grab their scruff? It’s actually an instinctive thing that they just know to do. However, this automatic ability to go limp when picked up this way doesn’t last very long, so you shouldn’t handle a cat this way.

Here’s what to know about scruffing and why it shouldn’t be done.

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How Kittens Are Carried

You know that kittens get carried around by their scruffs when mama cat decides they need to be moved to a new place, but why are they getting carried? Newborn kitties are altricial animals, which just means they are incapable of walking immediately after birth (unlike horses, for example, who get up pretty quickly after they’re born).

In fact, kittens can’t walk for the first three weeks of their lives! So, if they need to be relocated because the mother cat has decided their current spot is unsafe or too small or something similar, she’ll have to pick them up to move them.

She does this by, of course, picking the kittens up with her mouth by the scruff of their necks. Because it’s excess skin, it doesn’t hurt the kittens to be picked up this way. However, kittens could be injured if they got too squirmy or wiggly while carried like this.

And that is what brings us to the reason kittens go limp when picked up by the scruff of their necks! As we said, it’s an instinctive thing. Kittens know when they’re picked up like this, they need to tuck their legs in, cease all movement, and go limp. Doing so means they won’t get injured while being carted around.

woman holding a homeless kitten outdoors
Image Credit: shymar27, Shutterstock

Why You Shouldn’t Scruff Cats Who Aren’t Kittens

So, if cats are used to being picked up by the scruff from a young age, it should be fine for you to pick up your cat this way, even when they’re adults, right? Wrong! You should never pick up cats this way (even kittens, actually) because felines lose this instinctive reflex to go limp as they get older. Even a kitten’s mother will only pick up a cat in this way for a few weeks. And if you pick up your cat by the scruff, and they don’t have the going limp reflex anymore, they could get injured.

Plus, for adult cats, being scruffed can actually cause fear and anxiety. Besides stressing your kitty out, scruffing your cat could cause them to distrust you or even become aggressive.

So rather than picking up a kitten or cat by the scruff, support their weight when you hold them. Put a hand underneath their rear and another underneath the chest for support, then bring them close to your body so they can’t jump down.

And if you need to restrain your pet for some reason (like getting them to swallow medicine instead of spitting it back out), skip the scruffing and instead gently place a hand beneath the jaw to stabilize the head. You can also place a towel gently over the cat, or wrap them in it,  if you are trying to keep them from scratching or flailing limbs while you handle them.

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Final Thoughts

Kittens go limp when picked up by the scruff because they have an instinctive reflex that tells them to do so to avoid being injured while being carried. However, the same doesn’t hold true for older cats, as felines lose this ability to automatically go limp as they age. This makes it vital that you not scruff your cat. Doing so with an adult can cause them to become fearful, anxious, distrustful, and possibly even aggressive. Plus, you could injure your furry friend by doing this. So, leave the scruffing to mama cat, and pick up your feline as you would a baby instead!


Featured Image Credit: Olha Nosova, Shutterstock

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Misty Layne lives out in the woods in small-town Alabama with her two Siamese—Serafina and Jasper. She also has an array of stray cats, raccoons, and possums who like to call her front porch home. When she’s not writing about animals, you’ll find her writing poetry, stories, and film reviews (the animals are, by far, her favorite writing topic, though!). In her free time, Misty enjoys chilling with her cats, playing...Read more

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