Know When to Hold’em; Or Not

Lots of cats don’t like being held.

After all, cats are warm, soft, and look so inviting. Not all cats want to be picked up and held, however, and some want to be held at certain times. In fact, cats are, as we well know, opinionated.

Before we talk about how to pick up and hold a cat, let’s look at things from a cat’s perspective. Domestic cats are predators by nature; small ones of course, but predators nonetheless. To be successful a predator needs to be watchful and able to move. We see this in adolescent kittens; they are fast, able to move in a split second and leap, twist, turn, and dash. These kittens will settle in for affection on their terms, usually when tired, but if you try to restrain one of these kittens when he’s fired up, he’ll probably squirm to get away and may also bite or claw the hands holding him.

Thankfully, a well-loved cat, as she grows up, will often settle into domesticity and this will no longer be a problem. Some cats, though, will never enjoy being picked up and held, but you can help them learn to tolerate it.

Introduce a Friendly Touch

Hands can be frightening things to a cat. When I’m fostering kittens, I’ve noticed that kittens who don’t know me tend to watch what my hands are doing. Later, when they’ve come to trust me, they will look at my face and make eye contact.

The first thing I want to do then, is teach the kittens (or cat) that my hands are wonderful. I may initially offer some tuna or salmon on the tip of a spoon with the handle in my hand so only the tip of the bowl of the spoon showing. (I don’t put the fish on my finger just in case an angry or frightened feline decides to bite!) Then I may just rub the kitten at the base of the ear with one finger. I will scratch gently at the base of the tail. When the kitten begins to relax, I’ll cup my hand around her (without picking her up) but touching so she can feel my warmth and touch.

When the kitten or cat is accepting this level of handling, then I’ll move my hands all over her body—gently at first, and watch her reactions. If her pupils dilate, ears flatten to her head, or she lifts a paw; I’ll stop moving. I freeze. Depending on how quickly she relaxes I may continue to touch her, slowly, or I may stop altogether for this session.

The goal is to both find out what your cat likes or dislikes before you pick her up as well as to teach her to trust your hands. If at any time during this process (which may take several days for a kitten or weeks for a newly adopted, frightened adult cat) you must pick up and hold the cat for necessary veterinary care, wrap the cat in a towel burrito-style (all legs tucked inside) and pick her up that way. Let her think the towel is evil rather than you.



Pick Up Techniques

When your cat has learned that your hands are wonderful and she relaxes into your touch, let your cat tell you when she’s ready to be picked up. If she’s arching against your legs or rubbing her head against your hand, awesome. This means she’s happy to be with you. However, if her tail is whipping back and forth, her pupils are dilated, and her ears are back; don’t even try to pick her up. Wait for another time.

To pick her up, crouch down (rather than grab from above) and place one hand under her chest, behind the arm pits while the other scoops under the hips. Stand up and bring her close to your body; don’t suspend her in space. Although holding her away from you might seem safer (she can’t reach you with claws or teeth) you are going to frighten her and violence is more likely to ensue. Instead, hold her close to your body. Keep the one hand under her hips, but the hand under her chest can move to rub some favorite spots.

Just as you waited for her to tell you when she was ready to be picked up, listen to her when she wants to be put down. When she fidgets, go ahead and put her down. Don’t wait until she’s panicked or is willing to fight you to get down. If you want to be able to pick her up in a safe, enjoyable manner, you need to listen and respond to her cues. When you put her down, don’t let go of her until her paws are down on the floor or a piece of furniture. Do not drop her from a height.

Scruffing is for Emergencies

We’ve all seen photos of a mother cat carrying her kitten by the scruff (the loose skin around the neck). Since the momma cat has to walk on all four feet if she needs to move her kittens, this is the only way she can do it. When held by the scruff the kittens freeze and don’t fight the mother cat.

When I need to handle a foster kitten who doesn’t want to be bathed, or have his eyes washed, or swallow medication I will use the scruff technique to hold the kitten. It’s not my first choice, however. I’d much rather wrap a small kitten in a towel and work with him that way. Many times scruffing a kitten creates more fear when it’s done by a human.

As kittens grow up the scruffing technique becomes less effective. Although a few adult cats will still freeze when held that way, many will fight with claws and teeth when held by the scruff. Plus, if you attempt to lift an adult cat by the scruff alone, you’re apt to hurt her as she will be too heavy.

So save the scruff technique for emergencies with kittens. With adult cats, use it only when other options aren’t viable, and while one hand scruffs the cat, place another hand under the hips. Then as soon as possible, wrap the cat in a blanket or towel, put her in a crate, or do what’s necessary, and release the scruff.



Be Patient

Many adopted cats weren’t originally taught that being held is a good thing. Maybe they were rescued from a feral colony and never knew human touch, or maybe they were in an abusive situation. Whatever their past, these cats will be frightened of your touch.

After I adopted my cats (originally from a feral colony, sick and unsocialized), I wasn’t able to pick them up for several months. That didn’t mean I didn’t touch them, though. I simply took my time and showed them that my hands brought food, rubbed their ears, stroked their back, and made them feel good. I was patient. By the time I was able to pick them up there was no fear because by then they both trusted me.

Being patient is important for all cats, well socialized or not, kitten or adult. If you take your time and let your cat tell you when she’s ready to be petted or ready to be picked up, then you both will enjoy it and there will be no fear.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to

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