How To Pick Up a Cat

Janelle Leeson
By Janelle Leeson. Reviewed by Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jun. 18, 2023
person holding an orange longhaired cat

Picking up a cat and holding them in a way that they’ll appreciate is a skill you can learn at any time, whether you’re a new or experienced cat parent. However, there’s one thing you should never do: picking them up by the scruff of the neck, or “scruffing” them, says Dr. Julie Liu, an Elite Fear Free Certified Professional and Cat Friendly Veterinarian. While kittens are often picked up this way by their mothers, many adult cats will find this painful and scary.

Instead, as you’re learning how to hold a cat, pay attention to your cat’s body language to ensure they feel safe and comfortable in your arms. While not all cats enjoy being held, practicing positive handling and teaching your cat to accept handling for nail trimming, fur brushing, and toothbrushing will keep your cat happy and healthy.

Here’s how to pick up a cat the right way.

Does Your Cat Want To Be Picked Up?

Before interacting with a cat, offer your hand and let them decide if they’d like to interact. Respecting a cat’s individuality and reading their body language is key to interacting with them in a way they'll enjoy.

According to Liu, body language cues can indicate if a cat is enjoying the interaction and is open to being held:

On the other hand, if your cat doesn't want to be held, Liu says they’ll exhibit what she refers to as "the four Fs of stress": Fight, flight, freeze, or fidget.

  • Fight. Your cat’s pupils may be dilated and their ears may be flat against their head. They might hiss, growl, scratch, or bite.

  • Flight. Your cat may try to avoid the interaction by moving away or hiding. If you’ve already picked them up, they may wiggle around, indicating they want to get down.

  • Freeze. Cats with a freeze response have frozen postures and rigid muscles. They may be quiet, and when you pick them up, they could go limp. This shouldn’t be confused with a relaxed posture. Liu explains that this is learned helplessness, where a cat gives up because they don't believe their actions will matter.

  • Fidget. This might look like lip licking, yawning, sudden grooming, or a full body shake after being placed back down, Liu says.

In any of these situations, Liu recommends watching for negative body language such as dilated pupils, flattened ears, hunched or rigid body posture, annoyed meowing, hissing, or growling, or a tucked or thrashing tail. If you notice any of these signs, it’s not the right time to pick up—or pet—your cat. Give them some space and let the cat approach you for interaction.

How To Pick Up and Hold a Cat

Every cat has their own preferences for how to be picked up and held. But Liu says there are a few general guidelines, the first being to never grab, hold, or lift a cat by the scruff of their neck. “It can be painful, lead to significant fear and stress, and takes away their sense of control,” she says.

Instead, when picking up a cat, use both hands to support them. Rather than facing a cat straight on, which can be intimidating to them, face in the same direction as the cat. Then, follow these steps, modifying them to fit your and your cat's preferences:

  1. Facing the same direction as your cat, slowly crouch next to them.

  2. Touch the top of their shoulders, then glide your hand to the outer side of their body and under their chest, fingertips toward their face.

  3. With your elbow toward their back end, gently tuck their hind end into the crook of your elbow. This will provide support for their hind end and feel similar to holding a football, Liu says.

  4. Use your free hand to provide extra support at the front of their chest.

When enjoying the experience, cats settle into a position they prefer, Liu says. For example, some cats are comfortable with their legs dangling, while others prefer more support for their hind legs. One position most cats don’t like is belly-up like a baby; it’s one of the most vulnerable positions for a cat, Liu explains.

Gently and slowly return all paws to the ground when your cat is still enjoying being held, or at the first meow, fidget, or glance toward the floor. “If you’re waiting until your cat leaps out of your arms or struggles, you probably missed or ignored some signals of stress, which contributes to negative associations,” Liu says.

How To Hold a Kitten

While an itty-bitty kitten can fit into one hand, Liu says to use two. “People sometimes pick them up and hold them up in the air like a stuffed animal, which could be frightening. Even for kittens, use two hands to pick them up and hold them for stability,” she says.

How NOT To Pick up a Cat

Because every cat has their own preferences, learn the body language of feline stress and monitor for signs throughout your interaction. In addition to not scruffing a cat, Liu says most cats don’t enjoy a human hug.

Picking up and holding a cat should build positive associations and provide bonding moments. “If you’re only picking your cat up to move her off the kitchen table or place her in the cat carrier to go to the vet, she’s probably going to associate being picked up with something negative,” Liu says.

Can I Train My Cat to Like Being Held?

If your cat doesn’t enjoy being handled, routine care can be difficult. Help your cat become more comfortable being held by first training them to associate positive experiences with being in your lap.

Liu says to lure them over with a tasty, high-reward treat and gradually spend more time holding your cat in your lap while they enjoy positive stimuli, like the treat or verbal praise.

“End your training sessions before your cat shows signs of annoyance or frustration with her body language,” Liu says. “Once your cat is comfortable being held in your lap, you can try progressing to picking her up for brief periods.”

At the end of the day, don’t take it personally if physical contact isn’t something your cat appreciates. There are plenty of other ways to bond, like playing with a wand toy or simply enjoying their presence.

Featured Image: Adobe/Konstantin Aksenov

Janelle Leeson


Janelle Leeson

Freelance Writer

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