Scruffing a Cat — Why You Shouldn’t Do It and How to Restrain a Cat the Right Way

A baby kitten and a mother cat.
A baby kitten and a mother cat. Photography ©Milkos | Thinkstock.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “Grab them by the scruff of the neck!” While it’s an antiquated quip, there are still some folks who believe that scruffing a cat is a proper feline-handling skill. Why this myth is still believed as true is perplexing — there are much better and more humane ways to handle your cat. The experts agree that scruffing a cat is a terrible practice that shouldn’t be the “go-to” method for restraining any feline.

A mother cat scruffing a kitten.
A mother cat scruffing a kitten. Photography by IrinaK / Shutterstock.

What is scruffing a cat?

Scruffing a cat is when you take the skin on the back of your cat’s neck (called the scruff) into your hand and hold it. The skin is looser in that area, and some people wrongfully use the scruff as a handle. Dr. Kelly C. Ballantyne, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, explains why scruffing a cat is still in use: “Scruffing may cause some cats to become immobile, which may allow veterinarians (and owners) to get things done without struggling with the cat, such as nail trims or medication administration.”

Another reason folks continue to perpetuate this mistaken way of interacting with cats is because they think they’re mimicking what a mother cat does. “Cat owners may also be under the impression that scruffing is a natural way in which cats reprimand each other, but this isn’t true,” Dr. Ballantyne says. “While mother cats carry their kittens by the scruff, this is to move them from one spot to another when they are very young and isn’t a form of discipline.”

“Scruffing can be uncomfortable as well as frightening,” Dr. Ballantyne says. “And while scruffing may temporarily immobilize some cats, it’s not effective for all cats. If the cat is frightened during the experience, he may change strategies in order to get out of the situation, such as by swatting, scratching or biting.”

How to restrain a cat without scruffing

There are many ways to safely restrain a cat that don’t involve scruffing. Dr. Margaret Gruen, PhD, Duke University, says, “There has been a lot of work around low-stress and fear-free handling of cats. Allowing them the use of at least one limb and providing distractions (like delicious foods) can be helpful when having to restrain cats. Most cats do well with a ‘less-is-more type’ of handling. Scruffing and stretching a cat only serves to make them have negative associations with the experience and become progressively worse. Scruffing is often done as a shortcut, but in the long run, it has costs for both the cat’s welfare and the owner’s willingness to bring their cats to the vet.”

Dr. Ballantyne recommends using a handy, everyday tool, like a towel. “Some of the most common options include allowing the cat to hide his or her head under a towel or blanket or gently wrapping the cat’s body in a towel. It’s important that the towel provides steady, even pressure but not be so tight that it impairs the cat’s ability to breathe.”

While Dr. Ballantyne’s advice might sound technical, you’ve probably already seen this technique in action. The social media meme featuring a “burrito cat” is actually a cat who is being restrained and obviously pleased with the process. Dr. Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, Diplomate – American College of Veterinary Behaviorists James Law Professor of Behavior Medicine, emeritus, harkens it back to feeling safe a la Temple Grandin. Grandin observed that animals who were gently contained on all sides were comforted by the feeling. It’s like swaddling a baby, and there are products on the market today that do just that, like Thundershirts.

If you must restrain your cat — easy does it

Forcing a cat to do something he doesn’t want to do will most likely not end well. If you’ve got to restrain your cat, and you’re using the burrito method, stop doing it if his resistance escalates. Let him calm down, and try again after he’s settled. For routine procedures like medicating or nail trimming, waiting an hour or so can make the whole process go smoother. Whatever you do, scruffing a cat will make matters much worse!

Tell us: How do you safely and gently restrain your cat?

Thumbnail: Photography ©Milkos | Thinkstock. 

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49 thoughts on “Scruffing a Cat — Why You Shouldn’t Do It and How to Restrain a Cat the Right Way”

  1. People that are against scruffing are inexperienced and/or uneducated. It has been deployed successfully for hundreds of years. Don't use scruffing to carry around an adult cat for transportation but DO use it for necessary medical care with the cats behind properly supported, Ut is THE BEST WAY to disable 99% of cats difficult or not. It does no harm and is far better than watching 3-4 vet techs wrestle a 10# cat for over an hour generating far more trauma. Most of them never tried or have never seen it done properly so they don't even know how well it works. They unfortunately have only exposure to poorly written though well intentioned articles like this one.

  2. I just swoop him up and hold him like a baby. I call it a time out and we sit like that for a couple of minutes . He can be very demanding and if he feels your not listening he will attack your ankles or whatever part of you he can grab. I do get a little scratched sometimes but I trim his nails weekly so it’s light scratches.

  3. Randy Groskinsky

    I think scruffing is misunderstood. Yes if done lightly seems to provide some discipline. I never carry a cat by the scruff. Simply hold them by the chest with front paws back and a light grab of scruff. They might bite or kick with back legs but they will give up if you ignore it. They, like any other, learn who is the alpha. I’ve had 40 years of cats and every one has been loving respect for each other.

  4. There is nothing wrong with scruffing a cat as a temporary restraint. My cat has no problem with me scruffing her. “Burritoing” requires a certain finesse not everyone has, and if you don’t have the experience and skill to “burrito” a cat, then you can cause your cat more trauma than you can by scruffing. Also, NEVER carry your cat by the scruff.

  5. Carole Ann Ann Brown

    And it never hurts to socialize your cat as soon as they come home to procedures such as being pilled, getting nails done, being put into the carrier, being restrained for veterinary procedures, in a calm, friendly and happy way so you don’t have to restrain them to do it. My cats that I trained from kittens lay there to get nails done, get into the carrier on their own, take pills easily, and don’t mind being handled for stuff

      1. I agree. Mine was 10 months old, and even the vet isn’t able to use that when giving her shots. I like her sleeping next to me in embed. She wakes me up, which is fine, but she attacks me at night often, and then I can’t go to sleep for several hours. I slept for two hours tonight before she woke me up. Its just her and I, so I really don’t want to make her sleep in the living room. I’m not the best mom and she’s had a lot of trauma even before I got her

  6. My cat used to do ok at the vet until one of the vet technicians scruffed her neck rather roughly scaring her something fierce. Since this incident, I have to be the one to hold her for the vet or she absolutely freaks out. Just saying, a bad experience for my cat with being scruffed.

  7. When administering meds, cleaning ears and eyes, etc., I get on my knees, get the cat between them and then sit down, making sure your not squashing him! This calms them down and you only have the head (and to some extent, the paws) to deal with. You can keep him pinned down this way, but work quickly!

    1. I do this as well when putting flea stuff on them. My cats are so use to it now when I get down my knees over them they do not struggle. I gently push their head, they lower it, and I put the stuff on them. I make it quick too. If I am to long than they start to get bothered by it and let them up.

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  9. This is absolutely incorrect. You’re not going to hurt your cat by scruffing the cat to redirect the animal from a behavior.
    Now there is a difference between scruffing a cat to catch it for immediate control, and scruffing a cat to hold it to trim nails, carry, etc. The towel wrap might work if you have time and ability to do it, but when the cat is cornered, scared, mad, etc, you’re going to get no where and you will continue to upset and agitate the animal. Our cat is a swatter, he has been re-homed multiple times due to his aggression, he is not calmed if he is covered and it stresses him out. This is a piece obviously written by people who don’t know what they’re taking about, don’t handle feral or abused animals and think you’re hurting the cat’s feelings by being dominant.

  10. Have to give your cat medication, use Gerber baby food. Have to put into the carrier? Cover them gently with a towel and pick them up. Have to give bitter pills or pills of any kind? Empty gel caps, DON’T FORGET the water in a syringe, squirted across their mouths, NEVER DOWNWARDS!! They have long necks and it helps ensure the pull went ask the way down.

    They take just a little care and give sooooo much love.

    1. I totally agree with the gel caps, but I use the meat flavored Gerber baby food in lieu of water. Much less likely it will be aspirated, and the thicker consistency helps the capsule travel down the throat more easily.

      I use applesauce myself, as I have always had trouble with pills, and water just does not help pills go down the same way something thicker does.

      Awesome advice, though. I had to work all that out myself, as no vet ever suggested anything of the sort, and I think this advice should be spread as widely as possible to spar millions of cats unpleasant pilling experiences. So good job!

      1. I’m unfamiliar with the gel cap thing. How do you use it? Do you put the cat’s pill inside of the gel cap? How do you get the cat to take the gel cap? Do you offer the baby food with the gel cap?

      2. Brenda Cavallero

        I’m unfamiliar with the gel caps thing. How do you use it? Do you put the cat’s pill inside the gel cap? How do you get the cat to take the gel cap? Do you offer the baby food after the gel cap?

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  12. There needs to be a distinction between carrying a cat by the scruff of the neck and scruffing a cat. They are NOT one and the same. Carrying an adult cat solely by its scruff is not only inhumane but dangerous to cat and human. The flesh at the back of the neck alone is not enough to support the weight of an adult cat of any size.

    This WILL freighten a cat and may cause it even in the scruff position to lash out at the offender. In extreme cases it could also rip the flesh of the cat! Let alone possible dropping the poor cat.

    An adult cat should always be fully supported on its bottom while scruffing the loosest part of the back of the neck while being carried. This actually helps to release endorphins, and in some, but not all cats helps to calm/ briefly “paralyze” them. While other cats may have a reverse reaction and be startled by the sudden flow of endorphins. To test this before engaging in a full scruff simply pinch the back of the neck gently, only if the cat is not already giving you signs of aggression.

    If a cat does not respond well. A towel may be the better option. However this article is misleading in that it gives the sense that all cats love being burritoed. THEY DO NOT! A cat on the defense may not appreciate being ambushed by a towel and may bite and attack the towel and whoever provided it in the chaos of protecting itself. Not all cats like hiding thier faces either very much the opposite. Some cars will immeduately become defensive if you try to cover their face. You really just have to know and read your cat.

    If your cat is not being aggressive then don’t treat it like it’s going to become aggressive. Be confident. Give your cat the chance to trust you first instead of scruffing or burritoung. Your anxiety around handling your cat in terms of putting it in its carrier taking it to the vet trimming nails etc is primarily why it reacts negatively and only secondary the event itself. Allow your cat to look to you for comfort and support.

    If you must scruff though learn to do it properly. Do not carry any animal by the scruff and often just a little pinch can calm things down. Use it and any other restraint method sparingly!

    1. The ONLY reason to scruff my kitten is to administer oral liquid meds and eye meds. What was impossible to do without scruffing became instantly easy and much less traumatic for us both.

      Buddy needs his meds to cure a nasty virus and bacterial infection. I’d had to drive him to the vet twice a day till she showed me how to do this. It’s not inhumane and it works!

  13. Cats… how do they work?

    i scruff my cat when i need to move my cat fast, is this wrong?
    For example, i’ve done it after my family moved into a new house and my sister wasn’t listening to his body language, (scared, uneasy, dont-touch), he attacked her in self defense so i removed him from the situation by scruffing him and putting him in another room so he could cool down.
    scruffing was the fastest way i could think of to make sure no one got more injured than necessary…

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for reaching out! Please check out the alternatives to scruffing a cat as mentioned within the article:

  14. newtothevetworld

    I never want to stress, agitate, or traumatize any animal. Is this article saying to never scruff? Are there more “humane” ways other than the towel burrito?
    I just don’t understand how this works with aggressive cats and in different situations and I don’t think scruffing a cat equates to terrible practice. Done properly, scruffing a cat should not hurt it? and I don’t get how the towel helps me to not get bit during a nail trim…

    1. Scruffing an aggressive cat is not wrong at all. You should never scruff and let the cat hang always support their bottom. This article is kind of misleading as cats are not always good patients or pets. Some are too aggressive for even a towel and most of the time the only way to control the head is by Scruffing.

    2. This article is total garbage. This is Misinformation and should NOT be spread around. When done properly there is nothing wrong with scruffing your cat if he is otherwise inconsolable. As long as his body is supported by your other hand it will not harm him at all. first clear indicator that this is not going to break your animal, is that the mother cat carried him like this and has been doing so for thousands of years. Correct me if I’m wrong but I thought that animals Natural Instincts were usually spot-on. And a lot of cats I have had get quite used to this and don’t have a problem with it…in fact they seem more relaxed and in a better mood afterwards. I’m sure there are some exceptions but i don’t think most people Scruff their cat to discipline them. Certain occasions make it necessary for you to have your cat under control. Which is totally fine and how it should be you should be the one in control of your animal in the situation not the other way around. Sometimes this is the only way. I don’t think I’ve had a single cat in my entire life that would ever allow me to Burrito them. It would probably the worst possible thing. Most of my cats seem to hate things over their face and they get scared and freaked out. Sorry, I don’t want to frighten my buddy and sometimes people don’t have hours to wait until they “calm which won’t last long because inevitably once you start doing set activity that cause the cat to freak out in the first place, what do you think he’ll do?lol… so guess what I’ll be doing instead?

      1. Yes, but not everyone does it correctly when they scruff the cat. They just pick them up and don’t support them while they do it, like the article said. I know someone that does this and claims they know all about cats because they lived with them but they basically ignore them, never clean their litter etc. They won’t listen to me either….

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  17. When I pill any of my cats, I consider the kind of pill and the typical reaction. Candy coated pills (Felimazole etc) pop right in like a tiddly-wink. I roll Stripes on her side, gently squeeze the corner of her mouth and squirt it on in. All done!

    However, uncandy-coated pills I will grease up with olive oil before dropping it down the hatch.

    I will bring the kitty to the countertop where I can see what I’m doing. I go thru cans of scrubbing bubbles. I will gather the front two legs in my left hand and gently lay the cat down on his left side. With my right hand, I will run the pill down the cheek and past teeth and into the mouth. Liquids — pretty much the same idea.

    I have one cat who understands that pills make him better but still resists the idea. With Justo, I get him on the counter, show him the pill. He will swing his head back and forth until he’s ready. It goes down but on his sked, not mine. I tell him that moving targets are harder to hit which seems to describe his tactic.

    The key is working as a team with the cat. Once they understand that together you and he/she are a team, they seem to resist less.

    Cats are a lot like 2-3 yr old children. “No, mommy, no!” is where it begins but not where it ends.

  18. I honestly think both methods work, but not all cats are the same and some will be better using different methods. I personally use both methods. I have two cats one is very independent, not super affectionate ,9 lb. mixed breed cat adopted from a local shelter(now about a year 1/2 old). Ruxin will yowl and try do bite and be very upset when being scruffed, so he works better in burrito cat mode. However my my pure bred 9 lb. Maine Coon, Apollo, is much more affectionate doesn’t mind being held and “burrito swattled” and doesnt get fussy when he’s being scruffed by the vet. It could be because he’s still technically a kitten, he doesn’t fuss when being scruffed. He’s a little around 6 months old. The point is you should figure out what works for your cat and you all cats and people are different.

  19. I have the same problem…how to get my cat into the carrier. I use the top loader, but she doesn’t want to be caught or handled at all…won’t sit on my lap, but will head but me and meow asking for food and water…she’s always fed on time…has a great cat tree…just not a friendly cat. Ideas, please.

    1. Barb, I’ve had cats for many years and this always works for me: to get your cat to accept a carrier, leave it out for about 2 weeks before any appointment. Let her walk around it, play in it, put her fave treats in it, make her think its part of her own toys and things. Don’t rush her. When it comes time to load her, put a yummy piece of tuna in the carrier and let her go get it. Do this several times, then when she is in the carrier, quietly close the top. When she comes home, leave the carrier out for a day or two. Good luck!

      1. Mavis Hintermeister

        Excellent…my cats were so used to seeing the kennel at times they would even go in and take a nap. They need to have safe places just like any other pet.

    2. Try treats in an open crate before putting treats in a crate that will close before heading out to the vet.

      I have a multi-cat household, and each one is different fm the next. Some complain the whole way there (20-30 min drive) and others quietly ride along.

      One of mine was a road kitty. Good Sense was only a few months old, weaned but would nurse, when he’d been tossed out of a car. His nose is boogered up fm hitting the Jersey barricade that separated lanes of traffic on the interstate.

      It was a Sunday after church when I returned for him. He was up against the barricade when I got back, hence the name! LOL I crept up behind him and snatched him up and pressed him into my chest while wrapping the towel fm church around him.

      I put him into the back of my pickup that has a camper shell just abt the time the police came to find out why I was on the road. Satisfied, Good Sense and I headed home. I had a friend over to help me “dig” him back out. He was scared to say the least. However, when he discovered a semi-feral nursing queen I had isolated w/her kitten, he calmed down a bit.

      Today, many years later, he will actually sit in my lap and allow me to run a comb thru his fur. He will not allow flea spots or nail trimming.

      Bottom line, have help if you can get it. Pressing the kitty close to you lets him feel your heartbeat and smell your breathing. These can have a calming effect.

      Some cats are just slower to warm up and play along w/their human than others. The sooner they see you as belonging to them, the better. If they don’t own you yet, it’s harder to get them to cooperate.

      Good luck!

  20. Totally disagree. It is the only way to manage a feral cat coming out of anesthesia after a spat or neuter. Burrito works fine on domesticated animals, but it you work/volunteer for a TNR org., best get your scruffing skills honed. Cats are not harmed. They are saved.

  21. I have seen people scruff fully grown cats and I wanted to smack the human! This just seems downright mean to me and all it does is break any trust you have with the cat. The towel method works with many cats, but not if they very large, or so it seems to me. My cat, Bear, weighs 15 lbs and he is not fat. To corral him to get in his carrier for a vet visit, what I did was buy a top opening cat carrier, which makes it a lot easier to get this big kitty into! No, it wasnt cheap but it was worth the peace of mind. I had tried to get him in an ordinary carrier with a front sort of door. I got scratched, he was panicked and NO ONE was happy about it.

    1. I had a friend of mine who had one big cat and only one carrier — a front loader. She solved the problem by turning the front to face UP and put the cat in back feet first.

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