The ‘Scruffing’ of a cat is a term used to describe restraining a cat by firmly gripping the loose skin at the back of the cat’s neck – this is sometimes accompanied by lifting the cat up or heavily restraining the cat in other ways.
International Cat Care advocates respectful handling of cats in all situations, in order to improve their wellbeing. However, our ‘scruff-free’ campaign specifically targets the handling of cats in professional settings, such as in veterinary clinics, but it also applies to others such as rehoming centres (eg, during health checks) and professional grooming situations.
When being handled by people in an unfamiliar setting, cats will almost always be stressed. This is because cats are a territorial species, and so being taken out of their territory and placed into an unfamiliar environment is a great source of stress to them. Furthermore, they may associate the setting (eg, a veterinary clinic) with previous unpleasant experiences.
The goal of professionals when handling cats in these situations, therefore, must be to reduce this stress as much as possible, and not to escalate it, in order to improve cat welfare but also to protect staff.
What’s the problem with scruffing?
As mentioned above, being handled in a professional setting is usually a stressful situation for a cat. A cat’s coping mechanism in a stressful situation is to avoid or retreat from the source of stress. Therefore, cats will cope much better when they feel that they have the option of retreat open to them, and as such, like to maintain a sense of being in control. The act of scruffing entirely removes the option of retreat and sense of control for a cat. Therefore, it serves to escalate their feeling of stress, leading to distress, anxiety and fear. When a cat is experiencing anxiety or fear and is not able to avoid or retreat from the situation, they will commonly exhibit aggressive behaviour as a last resort. Thus, the act of scruffing can actually serve to provoke or escalate defensive aggression, therefore failing to protect those handling a cat, as well as being harmful to the cat’s welfare. As scruffing is usually used when people are fearful that they may be bitten or scratched by a cat, it is actually counterproductive. Furthermore, research has shown that cats struggle more when being heavily restrained than when being more lightly restrained,1 further demonstrating that heavy restraint such as scruffing is counterproductive.
But what about queens and kittens?
Queens will carry kittens by the scruff if they need to move them to safety (eg, return them to the nest or move them to a new nest site). This is often the reason given by people defending the use of scruffing. However, being scruffed as an adult cat by a human is an entirely different matter to being carried gently by the scruff of the neck as a kitten by its mother. Being scruffed as an adult can be highly intimidating, and, as explained above, may lead to negative emotions such as fear and distress. Indeed, immobilisation from heavy restraint is known to elicit fear in other animals and is a common method used to measure stress in many species. Being lifted up by the scruff as an adult is especially inappropriate: although a kitten is small enough to be supported by just the scruff of its neck, an adult cat is not.
Why respectful handling and gentle restraint works
There are many different ways of handling and restraining cats that do not involve scruffing or heavy restraint, and International Cat Care advocates the use of these. These cat-friendly methods take a ‘less is more’ approach, and enable a cat to maintain some sense of control over the situation, which will not only improve the cat’s wellbeing but also achieve better results for the person wishing to restrain the cat. Indeed, research1 has shown that using ‘passive restraint’, where a cat was held lightly with the least amount of restraint possible, in a position of the cat’s choosing, where the cat was still able to move its head, body and limbs if it chose to, resulted in less struggling and fewer indicators of fear, anxiety, distress and aversion, than when heavy restraint was used. Therefore, this type of more gentle and respectful handling will keep fear and distress levels low, reducing the chance that defensive aggression will develop. This results in happier cats, easier consultations and safer staff.
There are also methods of handling and restraint that do not involve scruffing or heavy restraint, but can be used in situations where defensive aggression is already present, such as towel-wrapping, and using gauntlets when removing a cat from its cage, which are more respectful, reassuring and renders scruffing unnecessary.
How do I learn how to handle a cat in a cat-friendly way?
International Cat Care, along with its veterinary division the International Society of Feline Medicine (ISFM), has produced multiple resources to help veterinary and cat care professionals (as well as cat owners) handle cats in a gentle and respectful way, including handling aggressive cats. These resources are as follows:
- ISFM Cat Friendly Handling videos.
- Handling of cats in the clinic on our Cat Friendly Clinic website.
- New cat handling videos for vets and vet nurses. These were launched in April 2018, created in partnership with global veterinary health company Ceva.
- New handling videos for owners.
- Written guidelines detailing cat-friendly handling, developed in association with the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP).
What is our ‘scruff-free’ campaign?
International Cat Care’s ‘scruff-free’ campaign is focused on avoiding the routine use of scruffing as a means of restraining a cat, which unfortunately is still practised all too frequently. Our campaign refers specifically to the routine use of scruffing when handling cats. There may be exceptional circumstances in which there is a real and imminent risk of injury to a person where very brief heavy restraint, such as scruffing, may be necessary. However, these occasions should be rare and exceptional, never ever routine.
We are encouraging veterinary professionals and all those who work with cats to improve the welfare of the cats in their care by pledging not to use scruffing routinely. Once staff have pledged, they can download our ‘scruff-free’ posters (or order hard copies for a small postage fee) to show clients that staff handle cats gently and with respect.
Pledge to go ‘scruff-free’, click here.
By developing a cat-friendly attitude and a greater understanding of cats, all those working with them will be able to avoid the routine use of scruffing, creating safer, easier and more pleasant working conditions, as well as, importantly, improving feline welfare.
1. Moody C, Picketts VA, Mason G, Dewey C, Niel L. Can you handle it? Validating negative responses to restraint in cats. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2018 Apr 17.