Why Do Kittens Act Paralyzed When Picked Up by the Scruff?

The loose skin on top of Kitty's neck is called his scruff.
i Martin Poole/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Little kittens are balls of energy, stopping only when it's time for a nap. However, there is one way to stop a rambunctious kitten in his tracks — grab his scruff. When held like this he'll go instantly limp. It's like hitting a kitty pause button.

What Is the Scruff?

Where his head connects to his neck, Kitty has a loose patch of skin called his scruff. When held by the scruff, he'll become instantly submissive, thinking of whoever has hold of him as a dominant figure. Scruffing should be used sparingly; if you just want to hold your kitten for some cuddle time, pick him up by his middle with one hand and support his rear end with the other.

Kitten Instinct

His mom will use his scruff to carry him around. It is his instinct to go limp when his mother carries him. This allows for safe transportation. If kitten was crying or wiggling, it could injure him or his mom. His mother cat also grab may him by the scruff to get him to stop doing an undesirable behavior, like nipping or biting. This allows mommy to assert her dominance. She'll often groom the kitten after scruffing to calm him down.

Proper Scruffing

Scruffing should not be used as a way to transport your kitten around the house, but can be used to reinforce dominance when training him. To scruff him properly, gently feel his neck for the loose skin on top. Firmly pinch the skin and kitten will go limp. You can ask Kitty's vet to demonstrate for you. If Kitty squirms or yowls, release him immediately. This means you've hurt him and haven't gotten the scruff. Once he's a little bigger, you should never grab him by his scruff. While scruffing does assert dominance, and you've probably witnessed one cat bite another cat's scruff, it isn't a safe way to pick him up. His body weight won't be supported and it could lead to pain or serious injury.

Scruff Training

Training your kitty is notoriously tricky. Scruff training mimics how his mother would train him. Reserve scruff training for only the most bothersome behaviors, like aggression towards people or other pets, or if he's being destructive. Begin by scruffing kitty and pressing him firmly on the ground. Give him a firm “no” or loud hiss and release him. After letting go, pet him and tell him he's a good kitty. This imitates how his mother grabs him, then comforts him with some grooming. Remember, firm is not the same as rough. You want to make sure you have a good grip while being calm and assertive, but don't use too much force. This not only will scare Kitty, but could hurt him and cause him to avoid you altogether.

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