A few weeks ago a friend saw me lift Naruto, one of our kittens, by the scruff (the skin on the back of his neck). Naruto is a little older than 5 months and weighs 3kg. She told me it was ok to handle cats that way when they’re young but it will hurt them if they were older. It does seem a bit harsh to lift an animal that way, but I used to do it for the late “boss” and he was a ~10kg adult. So I did some research and found a few interesting answers
From a Yahoo Answers post
It’s been shown that the reason they like having their scruff grabbed is because it causes a large release of endorphins to the system so that when mom picks them up they stay quiet and don’t complain. In the wild this is crucial if mom is say, trying to hide them from a predator and needs them to be quiet.
Picking up an adult cat like this still releases the endorphins but unfortunately it also strangles them since their body weight is now being supported only by their neck skin. You can however give the cat the same happy feelings by grabbing the scruff without lifting the cat. While holding your cat whenever he starts to get antsy try gently grabbing the scruff and lifting up on it very slightly as if you’re going to pick him up. This should give him those happy happy feelings and you a quieter cat.
I did not find the “research” that answer is based on. But different references from veterinary sites present a similar reasoning. Now that doesn’t sound that bad, as long as you’re holding the cat with the other hand as well. Instinctively, any warmhearted person would do that…
However, this article on vetstreet.com says otherwise:
Lifting a cat or suspending its body weight by its scruff (the skin on the back of its neck) is unnecessary and potentially painful. And itâ€™s certainly not the most respectful or appropriate way to pick up or handle your cat…
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 catâ€™s shoulders would trigger the same response. But this â€œflexor reflexâ€ occurs only in very young kittens, and some behaviorists now say gripping the skin in â€œmother cat fashionâ€ causes stress and can make the cat more fearful.
Right, so the “experts” disagree? shocking, right! In any case, picking up an adult cat by the scruff is not an easy task anyway, and it’s much better to put your hand below their body and lift when they are calm. It’s also best to lift and handle and even carry the kittens around early on so it would be easier to handle them when they are older. Our Nero and Naruto are used to being handled. I regularly clean their ears and open their mouths to check their teeth. Being used to that allowed me to save Nero’s life once, when he almost chocked on a hard piece of bread that lodged in the back of his mouth and he wasn’t able to remove it. He allowed me to open his mouth and pick it with my fingers.
Still not all cats are the same. I couldn’t lift Gigi by the scruff if I wanted to, but she will gladly allow me to lift her as long as she sees me doing it and is looking at me the whole time. Bagheera the heavy black kitten (almost 4kg at 5.5 months) is still being elusive when we try to pick him up. But Pia is getting better results this last week. She speaks to him softly and insists on putting him in her lap and petting him for at least 5 minutes before letting him go. He is enjoying it, but is not letting go of his fear yet.
We’re still struggling with the little Psyco. She’s from the same litter, but is still under 2kg. She’s a tortoiseshell and her build is small like her mother. But unlike her mother and brothers she won’t let us touch her, and screams when she feels we’re closing the doors to keep her inside. She’s less fearful with me the last week or so as I feed her separately from the rest of them. She even jumps away from the food bowl that I put for the rest of them as soon as she sees me and goes to where I’m used to feed her alone. Now who said cats are not smart?! I tried to hold her for a few seconds yesterday, and she let me do that. But she was so scared that she pooped on the spot. Today she came and nudged me slightly when I was feeding her brothers. I gave her a little food and she allowed me to pet her without running away. We’re getting there 🙂