Cat Scruffing: Why You Shouldn’t Do It
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Cat Scruffing: Why You Shouldn’t Do It

Est. read time: 3 min.

At one time or another you’ve probably witnessed a mama cat carrying her kitten around by the scruff of its neck. This rather amusing act of transport is known as cat scruffing, or scruffing a cat. And while it’s okay for infant kittens, you should never scruff an adult cat. Learn why, as well as better ways to handle cats in stressed situations.

What is cat scruffing?

Scruffing is a way to restrain a cat (or another animal, like a dog) by gripping the loose skin at the back of the neck. Mama cats will scruff their kittens via the mouth as a means of safely carrying them around. 

Kittens go limp when scruffed due to a flexor reflex—but this reflex is only present during the first few weeks of a kitten’s life.

Why shouldn’t you scruff an adult cat?

Scruffing an infant kitten and scruffing a cat is not a one-to-one comparison. Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug explains, “There is no magical ‘limpness’ button on a cat’s scruff and the analogy of a mother cat carrying her kittens is inaccurate.”

So, why might you want to scruff a cat at all? Most of the time, people use scruffing to handle a cat in a stressed situation or to discourage bad behavior. However, scruffing isn’t an effective way to do either of those things.

It is usually a cat’s instinct to retreat when faced with a stressful situation. Cat scruffing takes away their sense of control: This increases their fear and stress, potentially leading to aggression. Scruffing is uncomfortable and may even be painful for the cat.

Scruffing could also damage your relationship with your cat. Your cat may see this treatment as a betrayal of trust and begin to act more fearful or hostile around you. You should never “punish” your cat with scruffing—in fact, many animal groups and veterinary professionals consider scruffing to be borderline abusive. 

Ways to handle or restrain a cat without scruffing

So, now you know why you shouldn’t engage in cat scruffing. But what can you do to handle a cat in a stressed situation?

Check out these tips on what to avoid when handling a cat—and what to do instead.

  • Do approach the cat calmly.
  • Don’t use a frontal approach with direct eye contact. 
  • Do allow the cat to approach you.
  • Don’t pursue the cat. 
  • Do come down to the cat’s level.
  • Don’t loom over the cat. 
  • Do gently stroke the cat on the head and face.
  • Don’t stroke the belly or (sometimes) the base of the tail.
  • Do read and respond to the cat’s body language.
  • Don’t continue to interact with the cat if the cat is excited or aggressive.
  • Do try again when the cat has calmed down (give it an hour or so).
  • Do provide fun distractions, such as food, brushing, or play.
  • And finally, do try towel-handling techniques (aka swaddling or “burrito wrapping”). Check out the video below for how to towel-wrap a cat!

The bottom line is, scruffing is never the right way to restrain or punish your cat. Leave cat scruffing to the professionals—otherwise known as mama kitties!


Cover photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

orange tabby cat with human hand near scruff - cat scruffing


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