Using evolution to chill a cat

I think there’s something to this, and my guess is that the metal clip activates the behavior—apparently still present in adults—of kittens who suddenly become quiescent when their mother carries them by the scruff of their necks. That behavior, of course, is adaptive for the kitten: if your mom is transporting you to new quarters, or removing you from danger, you don’t want to make trouble by squirming.

This doesn’t look too painful; perhaps some reader will try it and tell us if it works. DO NOT lift an adult cat by the scruff of its neck, though, for that could cause injury.


  1. Greg
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Like cats, mice mothers also carry their pups by grabbing onto the neck scruff.

    I frequently administer injections to mice as part of my research. The best way to immobilize the mice involves pinching the scruff of their necks.

    Here’s a video showing what happens when you immobilize the mouse properly ( Notice that the mouse is practically catatonic as it is being injected.

    For contrast, here’s a video showing what happens when you fail to pinch the particular spot above the neck that immobilizes the mouse ( See how the mouse is kicking wildly and moving its head?

    So, not only is neck pinch immobilization a great example of evolution and neoteny, but it also has practical applications in animal research!

    • jose
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I wouldn’t use a binder clip. Some of them are very tight and might pinch too hard. “Scruffing” (using your hand to grip the scruff without lifting the cat) is a standard veterinary skill. It can be done at home for medicating or examining a reluctant cat but it’s best to have an experienced vet tech teach you the technique first. It’s overkill for some cats and useless with others, but often works well with strong, wiggly ones. It’s not appropriate for most of my cats but I sometimes need it for my younger tabby who is 18 pounds of lively, athletic muscle.

    I don’t usually see much correlation between color and personality in cats, but flamepoints (like the cat in the video) are an exception – every one that I’ve seen has been docile, friendly, and easy to handle.

    • wayofcats
      Posted December 19, 2012 at 4:54 am | Permalink

      It’s the “orangey” in the flamepoints: in the cat world, gingers, cinnamon tabbies, even cream tabbies, are all known for their mellow disposition.

      Funny, it’s the opposite in humans, where redheads (perhaps due to lowered melanin, the nerve sheath insulation) are considered hot-tempered!

      • Mike Kelly
        Posted December 19, 2012 at 7:13 am | Permalink

        Melanin is the pigment but myelin is the fatty nerve sheath, so not really

    • wayofcats
      Posted December 19, 2012 at 4:57 am | Permalink

      They might be like that because they got the “orangey” gene from the cross that produced the flamepoint.

      Gingers, in the cat work, and even cream and cinnamon tabbies, all are known for mellowness. This is why they are so popular for film work, like the famous Rhubarb in the Hammer films.

  3. Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    We frequently use the scruff-grip (by hand, not clip) for claw-clipping, vaccinations and so forth. Based on our sample of 10 cats over the last 35 years, I’d say how well it works depends on the individual — some indeed go totally limp and compliant; others seem more to just endure it because it’s a hard position to fight back against (and they know by now that those claws are gonna get clipped, one way or another, damnit!).

    • Fastlane
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      This. It works pretty well on our cat, but I think it’s as much that she’s learned at that point that it’s going to be a fight she loses.

  4. Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Don’t know about paper clips, but teeth work pretty well to calm a cat (if you don’t mind a bit of fur in your mouth). Or just a firm grip, possibly with a bit of pressure from your nails.

    If you need to move the cat somewhere like that, support the cat from underneath but also do a bit of the lifting from the scruff. You don’t want to do all the lifting from the scruff of an adult, as it can hurt the cat. But a little bit will further help trigger the limp kitten reflex.


    • bacopa
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

      You’ve actually bitten a cat’s scruff? And I thought I was a cat lover.

      Even so, I wish I had thought of this. I was fostering a semi feral adolescent kitteh who would simply not take her tapeworm medicine. Maybe I should have used my teeth.

      GH has since found a good home and lives to rub against members of her new family, especially the dog, who she went totally medieval on the first time they met. She will rub against her humans, and let the dog lick her, but human pats are tolerated only for 30 seconds or so.

  5. Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    Doesn’t look like something anyone should be doing.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      If you watch a vet’s assistant twisting the ear of a horse, you’d probably say the same thing – it looks agonising.
      But … it is generally adequate to trigger a similar immobility response and also to de-stress the horse so that the vet can get a filthy great big rasping file (“bastard cut” or “dreadnought cut” from what I’ve seen ; variants of “big, toothy and scary”) into the horse’s mouth and vigorously file away at it’s teeth.
      It looks very cruel. But it’s not. It’s often the only way to get the horse (a ton or so of scared animal with iron-shod hooves and no reluctance to break human skulls with them) sufficiently “chilled out” for the dental work to be done.
      No dental work (or too much delayed) and the beast dies or gets executed.
      Such immobilisation techniques may look cruel, but they are often essential to carrying out life-saving veterinary treatment. The alternative is the slaughterhouse. Which is probably not the result you’d desire. (I’m an animal lover too, but I’m not sentimental. And I’ve no compunction about putting an animal down when it’s suffering and untreatable. Even if I’m likely skin, gut and butcher it afterwards and put bits into the freezer for later consumption. Yummy!)

      • Posted December 18, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        I’m not new to Planet Earth. I’ve lived with cats all my life, and I know what they need. They never need this kind of handling, and IMO anyone who finds this kind of thing necessary – or indeed who suggests that people try this out – is way off the mark.

        • RedSonja
          Posted December 18, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

          Out of curiosity, then, how would YOU suggest restraining a cat safely to place an IV catheter? Or get a sterile urine sample?

          No, it’s not fun scruffing a cat to keep them from eating me or someone else as we cause discomfort or pain. But I don’t have the weeks, or months, it would take to TRAIN the cat to accept a painful procedure when they’re in renal failure. Or suffering from an intestinal blockage. Or a urinary tract blockage.

          If our options are minor physical restraint and providing needed medical care, or not ever restraining and very minimal medical care, I’ll take the minor physical restraint every time.

          • Posted December 18, 2012 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

            Train a cat? Um, no.

            • RedSonja
              Posted December 18, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

              That’ll be news to my cats. And several of the big cats I’ve worked with.

              Seriously, with positive reinforcement training you eventually teach a cat to do just about anything they’re physically capable of. Mine work for chicken, tuna, or bits of Pop Tart. Noms are apparently highly motivating. 🙂

              • wayofcats
                Posted December 19, 2012 at 4:58 am | Permalink

                You CAN train a cat. Mine are.

                However, it requires a bit of time and a lot of trust. Which is not usually available to a vet tech.

                I’ve scruffed cats without injury on either side. Which is the goal and the point.

              • Posted December 19, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

                Agreed, cats are quite often eager to be trained. Mine comes when I call, understands “no”, recognises the names of some of her toys, knows when we want her to go to her room etc.

                It isn’t really that difficult. My advice is to teach them first how to pay attention through some stimulus and reward and then making a fun game out of extending this to more complex behaviour. As I’ve said before, I’m not sure why someone would want to control a cat, but things like teaching them the names of their toys is fun for both and getting them to get into their carrier to go to the vet is useful.

  6. Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    I use the scruff trick occasionally on my 16lb Ragdoll (who defies all the normal characteristics of the breed). He doesn’t go limp but he does stop whatever he’s doing, which is the goal more often than not. I’ve used it mostly for mess, but every once in a while I’ll use it as a “time-out” technique…he’s so fluffy being sprayed by a water bottle usually doesn’t phase him.

  7. jesse
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    This is an outstanding demonstration. Note the cat has lots of loose skin and is not chunky.

    I had a chunky cat who would tense up and get aggressive when this was attempted (with hands).

    She didn’t have much of a neck and did not have any loose skin. That might have something to do with this not working on that particular individual.

  8. taupossaft
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    You might enjoy this article, though it’s in french:

    It’s all about this kind of behaviour but in chicken, oppossums and even cows!

  9. RedSonja
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    I’ve seen plastic hemostat-type clips work decently as a “scruffer” when taking radiographs. But as noted above, there are individual variations.

    IME, it’s helpful when taking radiographs, especially solo, because it leaves your hands free to restrain limbs to get unobstructed thoracic and abdominal views. (For obvious reasons, having your hands — or head! — in the xray beam is to be avoided.)

  10. Draken
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    But does it work with a barking mad Dobermann?

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      Do dog pups have a “dangle” response to being carried by their dam? (I don’t know – I don’t recall ever spending more than a few minutes in the company of puppies still on the tit.)
      If they “dangle” naturally, then it might work ; otherwise it’s time to read up on your other canine psychology. I’d advise well-padded, long-sleeved gloves. Or one of those nooses on a pole.

      • RedSonja
        Posted December 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        IME, dog puppies may get quieter when you scruff them, but just as often shriek like you’re flaying them alive.

        From a purely anecdotal point of view, canids seem to relocate their pups less than felids do their kittens/cubs. (I’m more confident in that statement pertaining to domesticated critters than their wild counterparts.)So that may be why kittens seem to have a stronger reaction than puppies. *shrug*

        • bacopa
          Posted December 18, 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

          Probably because most wild canids have a pack to defend the denning area. Most cats are on their own and have to make tough decisions about relocating their young.

          Lions are an exception, and maybe jaguars too. Male jaguars often help out females by defending the territories of females they’ve mated with and sometimes even help care for cubs like male lions do.

        • gravelinspector
          Posted December 19, 2012 at 1:41 am | Permalink

          “scruff” as a verb, “to lift up by the scruff of the neck”?
          Is this a noun I see being verbified before me? (To misquote M’Beth, the Dundonian regicide.)

        • Diane G.
          Posted December 19, 2012 at 2:33 am | Permalink

          I have observed a red fox moving its kits one by one just like a mother cat does her kittens.

  11. Paul S
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    I’d try it with one of my Siamese cats but I’d have to wait for one of them to wake up.

    • js
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      Is works well with my cholcolate point when I’m worming him.
      Doesn’t do much for my tortoiseshell.

      • Posted December 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

        Why would you need to worm an adult cat?

        • RedSonja
          Posted December 18, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

          Because adult cats can get internal parasites too. If they consume a flea, come in contact with contaminated feces outdoors, eat any variety of critters in or out of the house – all of these are avenues for exposure.

          • Posted December 19, 2012 at 9:15 am | Permalink

            Agreed. You need to worm your cat once per year as your vet will tell you.

  12. will
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    I just goes to show that we may be all grown up & adults, but there’s still those childish responses (good and bad) buried within us.

  13. CatQuestions
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    So what explains a cat’s behavior when rubbed on its back near the base of its tail?

    • Greg
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

      Great question! It’s caled the lordosis reflex. Here’s the wikipedia entry:

  14. steve oberski
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    I’ve used this to break up cat fights, mixed results, still have the scars to show for the failures.

    I now also wear a pair of heavy work gloves.

    • gravelinspector
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      “Draken” might need to borrow those gloves.

    • darrelle
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

      Same here, with pretty good results. I’ve been lucky, no scars. On me anyway.

    • Posted December 18, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Be very careful with the gloves, please! Cats are more fragile than they seem, and the gloves remove a lot of the tactile feedback that keeps you from applying too much pressure. You might inadvertently wind up doing more damage to the cats than they will to each other….


      • Posted December 19, 2012 at 9:20 am | Permalink

        I prefer patience.

        • Posted December 19, 2012 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          I get scratched to shit, but hopefully I don’t harm my cat.

  15. Posted December 18, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Is this the origin of the “Vulcan nerve pinch”?

  16. E.A. Blair
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Some fourteen years ago, one of my cats developed feline diabetes. I had to give him two insulin injections per day, and when my vet was teaching me the proper technique, the first thing was to scruff him – grab his skin at the back of the neck, and lift up enough to make him docile and firmly enough to give him the idea that there was no avoiding this.

    There were two reasons for this – first of all the scruffing kept him still, and, second, the loose skin between my hand and his neck was the ideal injection site. It worked. As far as I could tell, the needle never seemed to bother him, and with the reward of suitable cuddles after the shot was over made him agreeable to the whole process.

    I have never advocated fully lifting an adult cat by scruffing, but have used it in an emergency situation. I had an eighteen-year-old cat who died this past October, and in his old age he had problems with frequently throwing up. It wasn’t too bad if it was in the kitchen or bathroom with tile floors, but if I caught him starting to urp on the living room rug, it was necessary to grab him as quickly as possible and immobilize him until I could get him to a non-carpeted area. This meant picking him up by the scruff, but I also put my other hand underneath him as quickly as I could. He wasn’t unsupported for more than a few seconds, and it usually delayed his vomiting enough to get him clear of the rug.

    Scruffing annoys my current cat; when I grab the back of her neck she complains audibly and tries to pull away. Her lordosis reflex, though, is extreme – she often falls over when I scratch the base of her tail.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted December 18, 2012 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

      Hmm, ’emergency’ vs ‘cat sick on carpet’

      I’ll run that past Peter Singer and get back to you.

  17. Christopher
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    I laughed out loud at the “maybe some reader will try it” line when my dry humor immediately pictured a bunch of readers of this blog with with binder clips on the back of their necks actually “trying” it.

    With reports like, “well, made me howl so loud as to bring the wife running”. Or, “couldn’t reach around with my bum shoulder so I tried it on the kids and they were game for a while with just a little encouragement”.

    No, I didn’t try it myself nor with my kids, they already run the other way when I ask them to read something I’ve found. And my cats are too spooked since the buck tooth cat photo bombing experiments.

  18. Chris
    Posted December 18, 2012 at 11:28 pm | Permalink

    You have no idea how instrumental this video was to cutting my cats nails. For years I couldn’t figure out how to do it without her clawing my face. I was successfully able to cut all her nails without any war wounds to show for it. Thanks

    • Posted December 20, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

      One thing that often helps is to play with their nails when not clipping them.

      I make playing with my cats’ paws part of regular games, including stroking the fur on top, lightly massaging the pads, and eventually pressing on the pads to display the claws.

      I do the clipping when we’re winding down from play, usually one paw at a time.

  19. BigBob
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    Darwin responds well to ‘scruffing’. Finger and thumb about 4 cms apart to the back of the neck, other 3 fingers fall in line. Grasp firmly, but never tightly. First his front legs buckle and he assumes the prone position after which you can roll him on his side if necessary. He purs quietly while this happens and sometimes stays put when you let go. Is there an actual name for this response?

  20. bruce from chicago
    Posted December 19, 2012 at 7:02 am | Permalink

    Grabbing or clipping the scruff of the neck never worked on my cat Miho (ginger cat with white face). It usually took 2 assistants to hold her down, and people usually got scratched or bitten. She once got out of a cat straightjacket the vet put on her. I always dreaded trying to give her medicine or driving her to the vet. Best cat I ever had though.

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