The way mother cats carry their kittens:
In order to safely carry their babies, mother cats will carry a kitten by the skin on the back of its neck with her mouth, or, scruffing. Due to a special “flexor reflex” the mother cat’s hold on the back of the kitten’s neck causes the kitten’s body to go limp. But this reflex is only present in the very early stages of a kitten’s life. Which means, if you try to do this to a cat, you are doing something quite different and quite painful. When you scruff, you are pulling the cat’s skin (imagine someone yanking on your hair) and taking away the cat’s option to retreat which only increases fear, stress, mistrust, and your likelihood of never being able to handle the cat again. And when you scruff a cat to pick it up, you are basically letting all of the cat’s weight hang by the tissue, nerves, and hair of that small piece of the cat’s neck you are clutching in your tight grasp. So why do people still do this?
Why people still scruff:
Cats are very unpredictable – especially in a new or scary environment such as a vet’s office. And anything new is usually scary to them. They are very much “fight or flight” creatures when faced with a stressor. So in order to restrain a cat who is exhibiting signs of “fight or flight” (or even before they give the cat a chance) people will scruff them, and this even happens in some vet offices today. This often stems from fear of what a cat may do to them, or else, a big misunderstanding about cats. We should of course take safety into consideration and not force ourselves to do something we’re uncomfortable with, but there are safe ways to approach handling a cat that do not involve scruffing! And we should try our best to better understand our furry feline friends because above all, we just want them to be happy and healthy and show them we have enough respect for them not to do something to them which would escalate their fears and mistrust – like scruffing. When we yank them or hold them by the skin on the back of the neck to remove them from their carriers, from their hiding places, to hold them down, to examine them, to give them vaccines or draw blood, this is cruel. And for an AAHA accredited hospital, this is neither fear-free nor appropriate handling.
So what should we do instead? In order to gain access to the cat if they will not come out of their carrier on their own, please do not dump them or pull them out by their scruff. Would you want someone to dump you off the couch onto the floor or reach for you out of nowhere and yank the skin on the back of the neck to pull you in another room? No, of course not! Instead, try taking the top off the carrier (if your carrier has that capability) then put a blanket over them to provide them a hiding place and pick them up by their abdomen and bottom. Or if your carrier cannot be disassembled, use a towel anyway to wrap over them and pick them up. When holding them for an exam, to trim their nails, to give meds, etc, try the burrito method. For this method, wrap the cat tightly and snuggly in a blanket in a way that keeps their limbs from slipping out of the blanket or kicking or moving, but their head is still out, which makes the cat-blanket combo look like a burrito, or purrito.
If you want the cat to come out to where you want them – say, an exam room at a vet’s office – make that environment somewhere they want to be. Make the room calm and comfortable. Try dim lighting, soft music, soft blankets, and feline pheromones. Feliway makes synthetic feline pheromones in the form of sprays, collars, and plug-in diffusers. The idea is to create layers of calm. And if all of those fail, the next thing to try is sedation restraint. But unless the cat is giving off obvious signs that it will bite or attack you, it is usually recommended that sedation should NOT be the first thing you try, especially for older kitties whose heart, liver, kidneys and other organs may not be able to handle the sedation. And if this be the case, one just has to take their cat home and try again a different day.
Risk of injection site sarcoma:
One last note on using the scruff. There are still some clinics that administer feline vaccinations via the scruff. The adjuvanted rabies vaccine (or “killed” rabies) is particularly risky. This is because adjuvants are linked to an adverse reaction known as an injection-site sarcoma In some cats, their bodies cannot control the swelling, so the tumor keeps growing larger until it starts to affect the cat’s quality of life. Due to its rapid growth, the tumor can grow into other areas of the body and spread. But vaccines – in most patients – are still recommended as a protection from diseases. So for those clinics who still administer vaccines via the scruff, that would mean risking an injection-site sarcoma in the scruff, a hard swelling directly over the neck and the only way to remove it would be euthanasia. This is why at our clinic – though we use the safer non-adjuvented vaccine – we administer vaccines to kitties in an area as far down the leg as possible. For if it would become necessary to remove a tumor caused by an injection site, if such a rare event were to occur, amputation would be a possibility which would mean a much better outcome for your kitty vs the alternative.
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