Why Do Cats Freeze When Grabbed By The Neck?

Why Do Cats Freeze When Grabbed By The Neck?

You may have experienced your cat freezing when you pick her up by the neck. Have you ever wondered why your cat behaves like that? Read on and let us unravel the mystery behind this.

Why do cats freeze when grabbed by the neck?

Cats freeze when grabbed by the neck as a way to react to stress. When they are grabbed by the neck it triggers an anxiety reflex causing them to “freeze” and take a defensive posture. Grabbing your cat by the neck is also called scruffing and it can also be viewed as a behavioral shutdown. To manage stress, cats freeze their limbs and it looks as if they are paralyzed. 

This behavior is instinctual by nature. When they were kittens, their mothers used the scruff to carry them around and they instinctually went limp to allow for safe transportation. Mother cats may also grab the scruff of their kittens to prevent them from behaving badly like biting or nipping their siblings. It is a mother cat’s way to assert her dominance and she will proceed to groom the kittens to calm them down after scruffing them. 

Should you scruff your cat? 

As a cat owner, you should generally not scruff your cat. Mama cats will only scruff their kittens when they are very young and you may only notice scruffing among cats when a male cat grabs a female cat’s neck similarly during mating.  

However, while scruffing is not encouraged, it can be used to reinforce dominance if you have a kitten and you are training her.  To scruff her properly, feel the neck for the loose skin on top and firmly pinch the skin. This should only be used if your kitten displays bad behavior like aggression or being destructive. 

The method includes scruffing your kitten and pressing her firmly on the ground. Say “no” firmly and release her. Once you let her go, pet and tell her she is a good kitty. Your grip should be firm but not too forceful to avoid scaring or hurting the kitten. If your kitten yowls or squirms, release her as she is probably hurt. 

Reasons why scruffing your cat is not encouraged

Scruffing is not encouraged for the following reasons:

1. It may cause fear and stress among cats

Scruffing your cat may cause fear and stress as well as aggressive behavior. This is because it prevents a cat from escaping or retreating and they lose their sense of control.  Cats may also become stressed when they are handled by unfamiliar or strange persons. 

2. It may result in having negative associations

Scruffing may result in cats becoming more worse as they tend to have negative associations out of the experience. Thus, it may cause more harm than good in the long run. 

3. It is uncomfortable and frightening for cats

Dr. Kelly Ballantyne of the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine states that scruffing may temporarily immobilize cats but it is not effective for most cats as it is uncomfortable and frightening. It makes them vulnerable as their sensitive body parts like the belly are exposed. As a result, a cat may swat, scratch or bite to get out of the situation. 

4. It makes a cat helpless and may bother them psychologically but also physically

Cats do not relish being powerless and when they are scruffed they cannot escape which makes them feel so. They may suffer psychologically as well as physically especially if you have a large or overweight cat. There may not be enough loose fur on their neck which makes it painful. It may also result in choking or difficulty in breathing. 

How to restrain a cat without scruffing?

You can safely restrain a cat without grabbing her by the neck or scruffing her. Dr. Margaret Gruen, Ph.D. of Duke University in North Carolina recommends allowing the use of at least one limb and providing distractions like yummy treats. Dr. Kelly Ballantyne suggests the use of a towel to wrap the cat’s body. The towel should provide steady pressure but not too tight so the cat is still able to breathe. This technique is also known as the “burrito cat” as cats are known to become calm and relaxed when contained or swaddled in a towel. 

Final thoughts 

Cats freeze when grabbed by the neck as an instinctive reaction and and a way to manage stress.  Scruffing a cat triggers an anxiety reflex that causes her to freeze into a defensive posture and at a glance,  she may look paralyzed or immobile. However, cat experts stress that scruffing a cat is not encouraged as it can physically and psychologically harm the cat. 

Image: istockphoto.com / Magui-rfajardo