Veterinary behaviorists question “scruffing”

Widely seen as a therapeutic method of calming adult cats, the technique can actually trigger fear and anxiety

Animal care professionals may want to reconsider the way they handle their feline patients.

This is according to Tufts University’s latest “Ask the Expert” column, in which veterinary behaviorist Stephanie Borns-Weil and emergency/critical care veterinary technician Michelle Damon challenge the practice of “scruffing”—or grabbing a cat by the loose skin at the back of its neck in a clinical setting.

The technique, which is believed by many to be an effective way of restraining and relaxing feline patients by mimicking how a mother cat transports her kittens, generally causes fear and stress in adult cats rather than calm.

“Mother cats only carry kittens by the scruff for the first few weeks of life,” the experts write. “They can do that because kittens have a reflex in which their bodies go totally limp when picked up by the scruff—a reflex that is lost by adolescence.”

As adults, the only times a cat is held by the scruff is while mating or when under attack by a predator. Clinically, what is often perceived as “relaxation” in a scruffed cat is actually behavioral shutdown in response to a very high level of fear and stress, Borns-Weil and Damon say.

They suggest animal care professionals practice alternative methods of control when handling feline patients.

“A gentle hand on the head behind the jaw can stabilize a worried cat without overly restricting its movement,” they say. “[Alternatively], an Elizabethan collar may allow a veterinarian to examine a fearful cat with minimal restraint, [while] an “out of sight, out of mind” approach in which a towel is draped softly over a nervous kitty’s head works well for some feline patients.”

More than anything, care providers should pay attention to a cat’s behavior throughout any checkup or procedure to properly manage the animal’s stress level.

“Cats often tell us how they feel with body language long before they resort to aggression. A pause in treatment, a few soft words, or a towel may be all it needs for a calm examination.”

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4 thoughts on “Veterinary behaviorists question “scruffing”

  1. These recommendations are made by people that are not doing the real world work that I do. I love cats, but do what I need to do, in front of the cat owners & everybody. Scuffing is not invasive, and I doubt, intimidating. It is usually safe and often needed.

    1. James Bryant DVM – Scruffing is NOT often needed if you understand feline body language and know how to restrain (which you likely rely on your nurses for). I’ve worked in a feline-only specialty hospital as well as general small animal practice and can count on one hand the times I’ve needed to scruff and only then for my own safety with an aggressive or scared cat. A gentle touch and a visibly relaxed cat is going to make much more of a positive impression on the client than a one-size-fits-all approach that is often too rough and inappropriate. I hope you can reconsider in the interest of keeping your professional habits progressive.

    2. I agree. As a feline only practitioner, I feel that proper restraint not only protects the staff, but also the cats from injury. When done in a gentle manner (no grabbing or sudden moves), scruffing cats usually does work well. I also feel that maintaining communication with the cat is helpful.

  2. I haven’t scruffed a cat in over a decade. Nor have I been bitten. We use fear-free methods including the e-collar as mentioned and towels sprayed with Feliway for hiding. We try to schedule so that the cat won’t be around dogs. If the cat is really fractious or fearful, we will use sedation. Gabapentin given at home along with Feliway has made many of our fearful cats much happier patients. For those too fractious, “Kitty Magic” is helpful. Gone are the days of “fighting” with cats. The cats are happier as our their owners and those of us working with them. It is safer to sedate a cat than to fight with them.

    I strong recommend Fear-Free Certification or other similar programs for those who believe that scruffing and stretching are not causing fear or are more effective than fear-free methods.