Why Do Cats Freeze When Grabbed by the Neck

As a cat owner, you have probably found yourself in a scenario before your cat is trying to run away or get out, and you need to pick them up. It’s natural to reach for the loose skin around their neck, and you may have noticed this causes your cat to freeze their muscles and lock up. So, why do cats freeze when grabbed by the neck? 

Cats tense up and freeze when grabbed by the neck as a form of a stress reaction. Grabbing your cat by the neck is often referred to as “scruffing.” This actually triggers an anxiety reflex in cats, which also causes them to lock up in a defensive posture.  

Do Cats Like Being Scruffed

Often people are incorrectly taught that scruffing is the best way to handle their cat, and now there is a common misconception surrounding the act. In truth, typically, cats do not like being scruffed at all. The action of holding a cat by the neck makes them feel helpless.

Their response to the posture indicates high levels of stress and fear as they lock their whole bodies up. People often misinterpret this as the cat relaxing, which could not be further from the truth.

This is a form of a behavioral shutdown. Your cat is so overwhelmed when grabbed by the neck that their bodies react with the highest form of stress management by freezing all their limbs. 

It has not been until recent years that people have begun to discuss how there are better ways to handle cats. In truth, some cats may not be as bothered by scruffing as others, but it is a best practice to avoid this method if possible.

When Should I Stop Scruffing My Cat

There are many misconceptions around scruffing because we witness mother cats hold their kittens in their mouth in the same way. While cats will often carry their young by the loose skin on their backs, this is only something you see them do when their kittens are very young.

Once kittens are developed beyond a few weeks in age, the kittens are more emotionally mature and develop the fear reflex around being grabbed that way. The only other time you will see cats scruffing is during mating when the male will grab the female’s neck in a similar way.

As a cat owner, you should really never be scruffing your cat at any age. Assuming you adopted your cat once they were more than a few weeks old, the scruffing behavior is not encouraged.

Can Scruffing A Cat Hurt Them

If you are concerned because you have grabbed your cat by the neck before, there’s no need to seriously worry. For the most part, scruffing bothers cats more psychologically than physically.

This is because cats do not like feeling powerless, and when they are scruffed, they are locked in a position and cannot escape.

However, when scruffing is done incorrectly, it could potentially hurt your cat. If you must scruff your cat, you should never hold your cat up off the ground so that none of their weight remains planted on the ground.

Carrying your cat around exclusively by the scruff on its neck is dangerous and could be painful for your cat. There is a large imbalance of weight when you do this, and they could hurt themselves by twisting and trying to escape your grip. Always make sure their weight is supported.

Especially if your cat is a larger breed or overweight, your cat may not have as much loose fur in their neck area. Scruffing is then very painful for your cat, especially if it is done for more than a few seconds.

Does Scruffing A Cat Release Endorphins?

While there is not much scientific evidence in this area, it is thought that scruffing a cat is correlated to an endorphin release. However, it is noted that the endorphin release is most notably observed in kittens and younger cats.

How your cat reacts to scruffing as he or she ages depends on your cat as an individual. Some people anecdotally tell stories about how scruffing their cat seems to relax their animal, and they often fall asleep afterward. One theory is that scruffing reminds cats of their mother, and that is why they enjoy it.

More often, though, the older a cat is, the more likely it is that they will be upset by scruffing and have an adverse reaction to the restraint.

 What Other Safer Ways Can I Discipline My Cat?

After learning that scruffing is not your best option for cat discipline, it’s natural to wonder what other disciplinary measures you could take instead. Disciplining your cat may be a high priority situation if you find your cat consistently acting out or exhibiting bad behaviors.

The first part of discipline is understanding why your cat is acting the way it is. Is your cat stressed out? Is he or she acting out because they are bored? Spend some time figuring out what the motives are behind your cat’s bad behavior.

This is important because it influences what kind of discipline you should be using with your cat. If you are in a situation where you just quickly need to restrain a cat, holding your hand behind your cat’s jaw is an excellent way to keep a steady grip without upsetting your cat. 

Use Remote Correction to Discipline Your Cat

Cats cannot understand when you verbally discipline them, nor do they fully correlate a physical disciplinary action to what they did wrong. What is recommended instead is using remote correction or the process of setting up an environment that disciplines the cat.

For example, if your cat is chewing through items they should not be, spraying a bitter-tasting cat spray on it will teach them very quickly that they do not want to keep chewing that item.

You can also use other sensory cues such as sound or smell to deter your pet from continuing to do bad behavior. Cats typically do not like loud noises, so setting up a loud whistle or bell will quickly teach them to avoid something.  

Figure out what method is most effective for your situation and your cat, and use that as your disciplinary technique. Always remember that cats are not humans and do not have the same awareness of right and wrong behavior.

The best way to teach them is through repetition and lots of practice. Another critical thing to remember is that you want to reward your cat in this process when you see them avoiding bad behaviors. Give your cat lots of praise and treats to indicate you notice when they behave well.

While it may still be your natural tendency to reach for that loose fur around your cat’s neck the next time they need to be restrained, resist the urge. There are much better ways to handle your cat that will cause them less distress and anguish. 

Ultimately, scruffing might not be physically painful for your cat, but the older your cat gets, the more distressed they will be by this action. The last thing you want is for them to be afraid of you, so use other methods to avoid jeopardizing your bond with your kitty. 


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