Why Do Cats Stop Moving When You Grab Their Neck?

Why Do Cats Stop Moving When You Grab Their Neck

Scruffing a cat means taking her by the skin on the back of the neck, aptly called scruff, and holding her. A cat’s skin in the scruff area is loose, so some cat owners tend to hold on to the scruff as a handle so they can pick up the cat easily. This is not painful for the cat but for most cats it causes them to freeze.

Why do cats stop moving when you grab their neck?

Cats stop moving when you grab their neck for the following reasons:

1. It is their way of reacting to stress. 

Cats stop moving when you grab their neck as their way of reacting to stress. When you grab their neck, you are scruffing them. This triggers an anxiety reflex, making them motionless and locked up in a defensive posture.

2. It is a combination of evolution and conditioning. 

Kittens have been conditioned to hang passively and quietly when they are carried by the mama cat by the scruff. They do this so they can be carried safely without any fear that they will be injured by their mother’s teeth as she grips the scruff on their neck. When they become adult cats, they instinctively revert to this same behavior if their owner scruffs them.  However, because of their weight, it could be physically discomforting and make it difficult to breathe.  

3. It is an instinctive reaction. 

When cats are scruffed it is similar to humans being held by the throats. Trained dogs that you see on videos also tend to scruff when holding or moving a puppy or cat. For cats, it is an instinctive reaction not to move because they are in a vulnerable position; their belly, which is a vulnerable part, is exposed and unprotected. Some cat owners agree that it is a reasonable way to carry an unruly cat because when it is scruffed, it will not move– it will just meow to show displeasure. 

4. They become relaxed.

Another reason why cats stop moving when you grab their neck is because they become relaxed. They are not paralyzed because they can still move their hands and legs.  Cats are unique because while some abhor being scruffed, certain cats love it and will even play dead just for fun. It is all up to your cat how it reacts. 

According to Dr. Kelly Balantyne, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, scruffing causes cats to become immobile. She notes that this type of handling is used by veterinarians and some cat owners to get things done without the cat struggling, such as administering medicine or trimming nails. Dr. Balantyne states that some cat owners may be scruffing their cats since they think they are imitating what mother cats are doing to their young. She notes that it is not a natural way with which cats reprimand each other and that scruffing is not a form of discipline for mother cats and kittens.  

Dr. Balantyne also adds that scruffing is uncomfortable and frightening for cats. Although it will immobilize them, it is not effective for all cats. Also, cats are only scruffed in limited instances– during the first few weeks of life with their mothers, when fighting, when attacked by predators, and during mating. These situations should not be replicated in a home or veterinary clinic setting. Cat experts note that you should never scruff a cat at any age. 

Reasons Why You Should Not Scruff a Cat 

These are the reasons why you should not scruff a cat:

  • It can increase stress, fear, and anxiety. 
  • It can damage your relationship with your cat.
  • It can make your cat more aggressive. 

Scruffing a cat is not effective in letting your cat know that she did something wrong. Cats are not aware of what they are punished for; for punishment to be effective, it should happen immediately when they do any unwanted behavior. It should be aversive so the cat will realize not to repeat the behavior again, but not so excessive that it would frighten her. Behavior problems should be addressed compassionately.  

Try to find out why your cat is displaying bad behavior and provide better solutions. Destructive scratching and eliminating outside the litter box could mean that your cat is telling you that something is not right. She may be stressed or have medical problems.  

Do cats like being scruffed?

Cat experts note that cats generally perceive being scuffed as aggressive. It is only considered safe when mama cats and veterinarians safely do it. Vets may scruff cats to carry out medical tests and procedures. 


Cats are smart and sociable animals with deeply ingrained instincts. They stop moving when you grab their neck because it is a way of reacting to stress, because it relaxes them, or just because it is an instinctive reaction. Being scruffed mimics the way their mothers handle and move them from one spot to another, but is not a form of punishment. Scruffing a cat is considered unnecessary; cat owners should not do it because it can cause stress and may damage your relationship with your cat. 

Image: istockphoto.com / Elena Iakovleva