So, a few days ago I was doing my usual quick scan of some of the cat groups on Facebook, and came across a video that someone merrily shared in good faith.
I was going to share the link to the video, but decided against it because I didn’t want it to get any more air-time than it already has.
Basically, it’s a video of 2 guys trying out a ‘cat hack’ where they can get a cat to submit in order to clip his nails, by biting down and scruffing the back of the cat’s neck… “just like the mother cat would do” (according to the video).
Stuff like this really breaks my heart.
Scruffing is actually a serious point of contention amongst cat guardians, vets and other cat professionals.
Here’s an excerpt from vetstreet.com
“Veterinarians have traditionally been taught to hold a prone cat’s scruff in order to control them for examinations and procedures. The theory was that since kittens go limp when their mothers carry them by the scruff, a tight grip on the loose skin over a cat’s shoulders would trigger the same response.”
But it’s not so cut and dry – many other vets and behaviourists will disagree and avoid scruffing cats where possible.
The thing is, according to many experts, this kitten ‘flexor reflex’ only occurs while they are very young. As the cat grows older, the reflex disappears.
Instead of going limp, scruffing an adult cat can instead cause pain, stress, anxiety, and make an agitated cat even more agitated. Lifting or suspending by the scruff is even worse!
According to veterinary behaviourist Dr. Lore Haug:
“Cats are only grabbed by the scruff on their neck in limited circumstances: by their mother during the first few weeks of life, during mating, during fighting, and when they are being attacked by a predator. None of these situations are helpful to mimic in a home, veterinary, or shelter setting. This is because scruffing is more likely to cause fear and stress, which can result in aggressive behavior. Scruffing entirely removes the cat’s options to retreat and their sense of control.”
Seems pretty straightforward, right? With an absent flexor reflex, scruffing cats sure sounds painful or uncomfortable for them!
Then something like this comes out of left field:
In 2008, a small study was done where researchers used 2-inch binder clips, to effectively scruff a cat over the dorsal neck area during veterinary examinations and observed the results.
Here are the results (emphasis mine):
“The positive response to the clipping was almost identical to that seen in kittens picked up by the skin of their neck by their mother. The level of immobilization and relaxation varied among individuals, and some of the cats even began to purr; 92% of the healthy cats and 100% of the idiopathic cystitis cats responded positively. Additionally, most of the cats showed an increased tolerance for the procedure after repeated experiences. A positive scruffing score appeared to be predictive of a positive PIBI response, giving clinicians an easy way to evaluate patients before using this procedure.”
But then add this, more recent (2019) study to the list which used a similar technique and found the opposite result – that scruffing cats showed the most number of negative responses.
No wonder the issue is confusing!
So, if (according to experts) the physical, nerve-initiated flexor response disappears after the first few weeks of kittenhood, what is responsible for the clear change in behaviour (freeze) when scruffing a cat? I mean, we can’t challenge the clear fact that scruffing cats does something to most cats that seems to immobilise them.
I would hypothesise that there is a psychological aspect to it.
For those not familiar with what ‘learned helplessness’ is, here’s a good description:
“…a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation’. (https://www.britannica.com/science/learned-helplessness)
In the early, extremely formative days and weeks of life, cats are (safely and naturally) scruffed by their mother. These early weeks are the most important for cats when developing behavioural responses to certain situations. By getting scruffed and moved around regularly, the stimuli quickly develops a ‘learned helplessness’-type of psychological response (in my opinion). That is, from a very early age the cat has learned that he can’t escape when he’s being scruffed by this mother.
Remember, animals displaying learned helplessness don’t try to avoid aversive situations, because they have been conditioned to believe they have no control!
This is very different from a physical, nerve-initiated flexor response.
Essentially, the adult cat is still getting hurt or stressed but is not trying to escape because he was conditioned from an early age… that he can’t!
So, a cat who freezes or appears to go limp when being scruffed, is probably not a relaxed cat at all – in fact, probably the opposite – a fearful, learned helplessness.
I guess it’s pretty obvious – I am firmly on team ‘no scruff’. However, I can think of 2 circumstances where scruffing is definitely appropriate:
This is my opinion anyway.
I can appreciate differences in opinion, especially when it comes to contentious (and confusing) subjects like this. Many of my readers are vets, vet nurses, breeders, and other cat professionals who may or may not have been trained to scruff as a default. The intent of this article is to show that the issue isn’t as clear as some think.
Here’s to happy and healthy cats!