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Home > Cats > Why Do Cats Go Limp When You Grab Their Scruff? Vet Reviewed Facts & FAQ

Why Do Cats Go Limp When You Grab Their Scruff? Vet Reviewed Facts & FAQ

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Reviewed & Fact-Checked By

Dr. Karyn Kanowski

Veterinarian, BVSc MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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As a cat owner, you may have heard that grabbing your misbehaving cat by their scruff (the loose skin at the back of their neck) will cause them to go limp and make them easier to control. Maybe you’ve heard it’s a good way to pick them up or discipline them. But have you ever wondered why cats go limp when you grab their scruff?

Well, not every cat does. The reasons why many cats go limp when you grab their scruff vary based on their age. Recent studies on cat behavior have taught us that “scruffing” is not the best way to control or restrain cats.

In this article, you’ll learn why cats react to scruffing like they do and why it’s not a good way to grab them. We’ll also describe alternative methods of handling your cat that you or your vet can use if needed.


Why We Used to Think Cats Go Limp When You Grab Their Scruff

Traditionally, it was believed that cats go limp when grabbed by their scruff because the grip relaxes them. Mother cats carry their kittens by the scruff of the neck, so it was assumed that scruffing adult kitties triggers this memory and a feeling of relaxation.

While it’s true that kittens relax as a reflex when carried by the scruff, we now know they lose this ability by the time they’re “teenagers.” Adult cats don’t have this instinct, so we need another explanation for why they go limp when you grab their scruff.

cat drags a kitten in a secluded place
Image Credit: Pukhov K, Shutterstock

Here’s the Real Reason Cats Go Limp When You Grab Their Scruff

Outside of human interference, adult cats are only held by the scruff during mating or if they’re being attacked, which can be extremely stressful. Cat behaviorists now believe that grabbing a cat by the scruff may trigger a state of emotional shutdown. The cat stops moving because being gripped by the neck makes them feel helpless.

Rather than feeling relaxed, adult cats are more likely to experience extreme stress and fear when grabbed by the scruff. Knowing this, it makes sense why some cats react aggressively when grabbed by the scruff. They’re probably experiencing a fight-or-flight response.


Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Pick Up My Cat by the Scruff?

As we just learned, grabbing your cat by the scruff might make them go limp, but it’s not relaxing. Instead, you may be causing your cat stress and fear by this action. It could damage your bond and relationship with your cat, too.

Picking up your cat by the scruff is unnecessary, and it is cruel, especially if you don’t support their body in the process. Lifting your cat by the scruff can be painful, frightening, and confusing to them. Instead, lift your cat under their chest while supporting their hind end at the same time.

woman holding and stroking a purring cat
Image Credit: Gadzick, Shutterstock

What Are Other Ways to Control My Cat Besides Grabbing Their Scruff?

Now that we know scruffing your cat may be painful and stressful, what better ways to control and restrain them instead? In certain situations, for example, at the vet’s office, cats may be scared, nervous, or aggressive. To keep everyone safe, your cat must be controlled with as little stress as possible.

Instead of scruffing, your cat may respond better to being held in a towel or blanket. Some nervous cats like to have their head covered. Another option is to use an e-collar to contain your cat’s head and allow the vet to examine the kitty safely.

A great way to help ease your cat’s nerves when being handled is to use calming sprays on the towel you are using. Some veterinary practices can provide you with a towel or blanket that has been sprayed with a calming product to cover your pet carrier as you wait to be seen, but it will be even more effective if you use it before even leaving home.

Anytime your cat becomes more stressed, their behavior can escalate. The goal is to calm your cat, even in a high-anxiety environment like the vet.

Is It Ever Okay To Scruff A Cat?

We know that scruffing a cat can be stressful for them, but there are two scenarios where it would be considered to be an appropriate option.

  1. If they are at risk of injuring themselves
  2. If they are at risk of injuring someone else

In most situations, if your cat has become aggressive or unhandleable, the best thing to do is let them go. However, there may be certain times when this isn’t the safest option. For example, if a cat has a severe injury and must be restrained to prevent further damage, or if releasing them could put them at risk of being hit by a car or attacked by another animal.

Essentially, the only time it is appropriate to grab a cat by the scruff is when the alternative is worse.



Adult cats who go limp when you grab their scruff are most likely experiencing an emotional and behavioral shutdown. Instead of being relaxing, grabbing a cat’s scruff can be stressful and frightening. Avoid holding or picking up your cat by the scruff. If your cat displays aggression or anxiety during medical procedures, talk to your vet about ways to make the experience less stressful without resorting to scruffing.

Featured Image Credit: NONGASIMO, Shutterstock

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