#1: The Nape debate

CW: sexual behavior

Annemarie requested a post about the effectiveness of scruffing cats, as she’s heard conflicting reports about it. My short answer is that it can be harmful, but there are good reasons that people, particularly veterinary professionals, still do it.

“Scruffing” is the term for when a person holds onto an animal using the area of thick, loose skin on the back of its neck, called the scruff. Cats, dogs, and rabbits have one, as do many others. The first purpose of the scruff is to be a convenient handle for Mom Cat. When she grabs her kitten, a reflex causes it to go limp, so she can easily move it from nest to nest in case of danger. This reflex fades after the first several weeks of life.

(Note: It is NEVER acceptable to pick up an animal completely by its scruff, save for emergencies. Young kittens can be carried this way because they weigh only a few ounces. Putting all of an adult animal’s weight on its neck is painful and unsafe!)

The job of the scruff is not yet done after kittenhood, however. In adults, it can serve to shield the back of the neck during fights; the thickness of the skin makes it hard to bite or scratch through, and the looseness makes it difficult to maintain a grip. Tomcats in particular have scruffs of steel.

Speaking of toms, the scruff also serves a purpose during sexual intercourse. A tom will grab a female by the neck while mounting her, theoretically to hold them both in place while they mate. This “love bite” also shows up as a dominance behavior, which is why a cat doesn’t need to be intact (or even male) to perform it.

All of this means that scruffing is more complicated than it first appears. When humans scruff cats, they might be sending messages they aren’t aware of.

Why do humans scruff cats? Veterinarians and veterinary nurses may restrain cats using the “scruff-and-stretch”: one hand gripping the scruff, the other holding the hind legs, stretching the cat out flat for easier access to certain areas of the body. In less-extreme restraint, it’s pretty common to have one hand on the back of the neck at all times, because it’s the safest place for your hands to be; it takes some gymnastics for a cat to reach back there with either claws or teeth.

At home, pet owners are more likely to scruff as a behavioral intervention. They’ve read that mother cats will do this to discipline kittens, so they’ll scruff as a way of stopping “bad” behaviors. Some people might scruff as part of picking up a cat, especially if they aren’t confident in their handling skills. It can also be a way of showing affection.

The problem is that our handling techniques are born of outdated ideas, especially when it comes to the relationship between mother cats and scruffing. It looks like a scruffed kitten is happy and relaxed, but they don’t decide to go limp when picked up – it happens automatically. And even if that reflex does make them calmer in some way, it disappears long before adulthood. Furthermore, it’s a myth that mother cats discipline kittens this way. Moms only scruff to keep kittens safe.

For an adult cat, a grabbed scruff means they’re either fighting, mating, or being bullied by a dominant cat. None of these are calming activities! If a cat goes limp when scruffed, it’s likely because they’re trying to avoid a fight. A female cat in heat might get a minor case of the jollies out of it, but that’s an awkward best-case scenario.

Like I said at the beginning, there are reasons that veterinary professionals still scruff cats. Vets and nurses need to be confident that they can maintain control during procedures, because otherwise they or the animal can be hurt. It also means their work can be finished quickly, keeping the appointment on schedule, but also giving the cat less time to get totally stressed out. In theory. However, because scruffing is such a loaded action, it can be the very thing that causes a cat to freak out.

Veterinarians are well aware that cats come to see them a fraction of the time that dogs do. Most cats have such a dramatic reaction to veterinary visits that owners just don’t bother, and it’s hard to blame them. Scruffing a cat during examinations may be easier at the moment, but works against vets in the long term by making cats more fearful and harder to handle.

It might be a different story if there were no alternatives to scruffing, but there are. Fear-free handling techniques are designed to keep animals calm, while still allowing professionals to do their jobs. If a cat is still too anxious to comply, then sedation is always an option. I know people can have a visceral reaction to that idea – that it’s taking away control from the animal – but forceful restraint does the same thing, with the added negative that the cat is fully aware and afraid.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just switching to a fear-free practice. It takes time and effort in a world where veterinary professionals are already stretched to the breaking point. However, if the goal is to get more cats into veterinary offices, it should at least be understood that scruffing is not the first resort for restraint, but the last.

As for owners, my recommendation is to avoid it whenever possible. The exception is emergencies: I’ve scruffed my cats to save them from themselves (like when poor spayed Penny got her paw stuck in the Cone of Shame and was choking herself, or when a foster crawled out onto the roof through a broken window screen – yikes). It not only makes them feel powerless and hurts our relationship, but it also becomes less effective with use. I don’t want them to be so unfazed that they start to struggle during a serious situation.

In conclusion, scruffing can be useful, but only in certain situations. Also, when deciding whether or not to use a particular technique, it's vital that we know what our actions are saying to the animals we care for.

If you’d like to learn more about fear-free handling, visit www.fearfreepets.com. And if you have any further questions for me, just ask!