Mama cats carry their young by the back of the neck, so it is thought that it’s okay to grab a cat there too. But when you try doing that, the cat freezes and tenses up, making you think that your cat is calm. Why do cats freeze when you grab them by the neck?
Cats freeze when being grabbed by the neck because they feel helpless and scared. It causes cats to become anxious as that is how a predator traps them or how a male cat mates with a female cat. The freezing is the cat shutting down due to fear and stress.
While this all might seem confusing at first, you will learn in this article why it’s not a wise move to grab a cat by the neck and how to relax your cat by other, more gentle methods.
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It Is a Myth That Being Grabbed by the Neck Relaxes Cats
Because mother cats carry their kittens by the back of the neck, people assume this is relaxing to the cat. However, this assumption is completely inaccurate. When kittens are first born, their scruff is pliable and allows them to be carried by their mothers. After they get a little older, even the mama cat stops carrying her kittens by the scruff because it becomes less pliable.
At first, Kittens have a reflex that makes them completely limp when picked up by the scruff. After a few weeks, mother cats stop carrying them by the scruff. Mother cats also know how much pressure to use and when to stop scruffing their babies so they don’t get hurt. Humans don’t always know where to grab not to hurt their cats.
Being scruffed in adult cats or being grabbed by the neck creates a sense of fear and anxiety. The only time that adult cats are ‘scruffed’ is when they are mating or being attacked by another cat. Because it is instinct to fight or flee when scruffed, a cat goes into a panic mode and will shut down.
So when you grab your cat by the neck, you are causing it to panic and, if you do it enough times, you will teach your cat to fear you.
Cats Feel Helpless When Grabbed by the Neck
Cats do not relax when being grabbed by the neck or ‘scruffed.’ They feel helpless because they are overwhelmed by the action and freeze due to feeling like they are locked in place and don’t know that they can escape. While you might not hurt your cat physically, you could cause some psychological damage, as it might misinterpret your actions.
The instinct in kittens to freeze when scruffed comes because if a kitten was to move while being transported, it could hurt the kitten and the mama cat. So when the mother cat moves her kittens by the neck, they instantly stop moving, and this instinct lasts their entire lives. The helpless feeling is a learned response and can make your cat feel powerless, which is not their preferred feeling.
Being Scruffed Causes Anxiety in Your Cat
Younger cats and kittens might display a pleasurable response to being grabbed by the neck, which might lead you to believe that scruffing relaxes your cat. Admittedly, in kittens and young cats, being scruffed does provide some pleasurable response, as it can remind them of their mother. But when cats are older, they start having negative reactions because it causes anxiety or anger rather than pleasure.
An already nervous cat grabbed by the neck will become anxious because it might mean that they are being attacked. Cats with anxiety are prone to destructive and aggressive behaviors and could fight back through scratching or biting you or other people or animals. An anxious cat will also relieve itself outside of the litter box.
Even in relaxed and patient cats, being grabbed by the neck can cause anxiety, and they will shut down until the threat is over. The action puts a cat into a guarded state of mind, and over time, they become fearful in many situations.
When you have an anxious cat, the last thing you should do is grab it by the neck, as this doesn’t relax it and could make the situation worse. Instead, try wrapping your cat in a towel or blanket softly yet firmly while letting it keep a paw outside. This helps them relax while still having a sense of control over their situation. Some people have termed wrapping up a cat as ‘the burrito cat’ hold.
Why Do Mother Cats Carry Their Young by the Neck?
The general myth that mother cats carry their babies by the neck as disciplinary action is false. In reality, mother cats do this to remove them from danger or to move them to a clean place to sleep. When feral cats give birth, they will move their kittens to a new location within a few days because the blood from birth could attract predators. Other animals could smell that and know that an easy meal is nearby.
Indoor cats will do the same thing, even though there is not the same level of danger as there would be outside. Other times, mother cats will move one or two of her babies to a different location if she detects illness in one of them. A sick or weak kitten might need more care than she can give it, and she is making her other kittens a priority, as they need her as much as the sick kittens do.
If your cat recently gave birth and keeps moving her kittens, you will need to watch where she puts them if one of them is weak and sick and needs your care.
How Can You Relax Your Cat Instead of Scruffing?
There are a few alternative ways to relax your cat instead of scruffing. Scruffing should be a last-ditch effort to restrain your cat when necessary. Providing treats while giving it attention and love can go a long way in relaxing your cat while going through a tense situation, such as a vet visit.
Other relaxing methods might include:
- Use a towel or blanket on top of your cat so it can hide its head under it while keeping a firm and gentle grip on your cat.
- Wrap your cat in a towel or blanket like a burrito while allowing a certain amount of freedom for your cat to move if it feels threatened.
- If possible, let your cat hide in a dark and quiet space until it feels comfortable coming out to socialize.
- If your cat is at the vet’s and needs a shot, hold onto it around its belly and pet it while speaking calmly and patiently with it.
Cats respond well to attention, petting, and a calming presence when they are fearful and anxious. Scruffing is not a means to accomplish this goal.
Cats are very sensitive when grabbed by the neck, and it could create more problems than it solves. While newborn kittens are programmed to go limp and relax when their mothers carry them by the neck, older kittens and cats do not relax and could be injured when carried or grabbed by the neck.
A stressed cat needs to be carefully handled, especially when you’re at the vet’s office. Your cat needs you to provide a calming presence with love and affection.
However, scruffing should never be used as a disciplinary action that won’t deliver the results you want.
- FAQ Cats: Why Do Cats Freeze When Grabbed By the Neck?
- Tufts Now: Is Scruffing the Best Way to Handle an Upset Cat?
- The Nest: Why Do Kittens Act Paralyzed When Picked Up By the Scruff?
- Catster: Scruffing a Cat–Why You Shouldn’t Do it and How to Restrain a Cat the Right Way
- Cat Behaviorist: Breaking the Myth on Cat Scruffing
Pam is a self-confessed cat lover and has experience of working with cats and owning cats for as long as she can remember. This website is where she gets to share her knowledge and interact with other cat lovers.