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Veterinary behaviourists 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 behaviourist 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 behavioural 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 behaviour 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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