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Anyone who has a cat knows that feline creatures are fiercely independent and often wary of people they don’t know. This means the first rule when picking up a cat is to make sure you have a trusting relationship with them. This bond will ensure your cat feels safe and comfortable.
Even when you feel like you’re one of your cat’s favourite people, keep in mind that you still need to watch out for behaviour patterns in your pet. Reading your cat’s body language will let you know if they want to be picked up and whether they enjoy your technique or prefer a different style of handling. The right approach matters because cats are sensitive to stress. You don’t want them to struggle in your arms as they could fall and get hurt, as well as leave you with claw marks.
Cats are subtle creatures but mastering their body language will help you limit stress and anxiety when they’re being picked up. Follow these dos and don’ts for how to hold a cat and explore the different methods of picking them up.
Before You Pick Up Your Cat
When picking up your cat for cuddles, your goal should be to maintain their relaxed state. It’s not all about how to hold a cat, but also about when your cat wants to be held.
Like picking up a dog, it’s important to let your cat know they’re about to be lifted. Do this by letting them sniff you to see if they ignore you or lean in for more pets. The lean-in response is a form of consent, where your cat says it’s OK to be touched.
If your cat displays any of these signs, do not pick them up:
- Wide, dilated eyes (a sign of high alert)
- A twitching or puffy tail
- Ears flat and facing forward
- Unhappy vocalisations (growls and hisses)
- Ignoring your presence
Cats are easily overstimulated by touch. Ignoring you is their way of saying no. By listening to your cat’s cues, you can avoid getting bitten or scratched.
How to Hold Your Cat
If your cat is showing signs opposite to the ones above, then she is relaxed. Other signs your cat may display to show they want to be picked up are:
- Approaching you of their own accord
- Rubbing up against you
- Staying in a calm, relaxed mood
In general, if your cat leans further into your hand for more, it’s a good sign that you can pick them up. Here is the safest way to pick up a cat:
- Crouch down next to your cat (don’t bend from your spine as this could cause back problems).
- Slide one arm under the cat’s front legs to their rib cage.
- Use the other arm to scoop up their back legs.
- Cradle the cat’s hindquarters in the crook of your arm.
- Put your cat down somewhere safe and quiet when they’ve had enough.
Be sure to hold your cat loosely enough so that they don’t feel overly restrained or trapped. But hold them close enough to your body to make them feel protected and safe. For smaller kittens, they may want to explore, which means allowing your cat to climb you like a cat tree. It’s important that kittens have as positive of an experience as possible when being held.
How to hold your cat like a baby
Of course, all cats will have different preferences for how they like to be held. Some might enjoy being on their back, cradled in the crook of your arm like a baby (and having their belly rubbed!). But you should only hold your cat in this way if they do not have any spinal injuries and are happy to be handled like this.
Always pay attention to your cat’s behaviour so you can learn what they like—and what they don’t! If your cat shows any sign of struggle, place them back down on the floor. If you are sitting down, you can open up your arms so that your cat has the choice of walking away or readjusting.
Wrong Ways to Hold a Cat
There are also various incorrect ways to pick up your cat. The biggest mistake people make when holding a cat is not paying attention to whether they want to be picked up in that moment. The other mistake is not supporting your cat’s body in a way that makes them feel safe and comfortable.
Some mistakes cat parents might make are:
- Ignoring a cat’s body language. Remember cats are independent animals that don’t always want to be touched or held.
- Picking them up by surprise. Before you pick up your cat you should reassure them and make sure they’re ready. And as we mentioned at the beginning, it’s important to only pick up a cat that knows and trusts you.
- Not supporting your cat’s hind quarters. Having an unsupported butt will make your kitty feel unstable and unsafe in your arms—potentially causing anxiety.
- Scruffing your cat. Some people might think that it’s safe to pick up a cat by the scruff of their neck as this is how mother cats pick up their kittens. But humans are not mother cats and kittens lose scruff as they grow older. Picking up a cat by the scruff can actually cause trauma, pain and muscle damage.
You may notice that your vet scruffs your cat to administer medicine. This is different because they won’t actually lift your cat off of the table and cause injury.
Is It OK to Suddenly Pick Up Your Cat?
There are various times when suddenly picking up your cat feels necessary, such as:
- Preventing danger or injury. If you need to pick up your cat quickly in an emergency your cat might already be stressed. So be sure to hold them in a calm and secure way they are familiar with. You don’t want to make your cat feel trapped! Hold them too tight and your cat could become hostile, jump down, or bite and scratch.
- To administer medicine. If you need to give a cat a pill, and they won’t eat it, you may need to pick them up like a baby. However, unless the medication is time-sensitive, it’s best to approach your cat when they are relaxed. You can likely wait for an hour or so for your cat to settle down.
- Your cat is scared or stuck. Your first instinct to help your terrified kitty might be to pick them up. But this could actually make their fear worse. Unless your cat is stuck in an impossible way where they can’t get out on their own or without a lure, you should avoid grabbing your cat to get them unstuck.
If your cat is scared, try to give them more space. For example with firework anxiety in cats, setting up a comfortable space until the trigger has passed will be more productive than forcing them out of their hidey-hole.
Are Certain Cat Breeds More Cuddly Than Others?
These cat breeds are a lot more cuddly than others and are more likely to be happy when picked up:
- Maine Coons
- Scottish Fold
Breeds that are less likely to enjoy being picked up include:
- Egyptian Maus
Also, remember that you should never attempt to pick up a feral cat. These cats are not domesticated and therefore not accustomed to humans. If you’re unsure whether you’ve found a lost cat, a stray or feral cat, aim to confine them safely and call your local vet or shelter.
How Can I Train My Cat to Be Picked Up?
There will always be a reason to pick up your cat at some point, whether that’s for a trip to the vet, or because you’ve smashed a glass and you don’t want them to hurt their paws. If your cat doesn’t ordinarily enjoy being held, then you should dedicate time to training them and socialising them to enable them to be handled.
The best way to train a cat to like being picked up is through positive reinforcement. Use a gentle, calm voice to talk to your kitty as you follow these steps:
- Pick up your cat, put them in your lap and give them a treat.
- Touch your cat’s shoulders and treat them.
- Stroke their chest and treat.
- Run your hands over their hind legs and treat.
- Repeat these steps until your cat shows no sign of stress or anxiety when being touched.
- Pick up your cat for short durations and treat them while holding them.
If your cat does not tolerate being touched, you may need to get them used to touch first. Here’s how:
- Before you start training, make sure your cat is in a quiet, familiar environment.
- Have some of your cat’s favourite treats so they associate touch with good things.
- Check your cat for signs of relaxation and wanting to be petted.
- Pet your cat and reward them with a treat after each stroke. Do this every day until your cat is comfortable and doesn’t need treats for reinforcement.
It might be a slow process, but keep at it, and don’t get frustrated if your cat isn’t learning as quickly as you’d like. Remember, to always be sensitive to your cat’s needs, and ask your vet for advice if needed.
Why Don’t Cats Like Being Picked Up?
For most cats who don’t want to be picked up, it’s because they weren’t socialised as a kitten or have had negative experiences around being held. Rescue cats or cats with a history of abuse may be extra wary of being handled by humans.
And at the end of the day, if your cat doesn’t always want to be picked up, that’s okay! There are lots of ways you can show your cat affection and build a loving relationship with your furry friend. Whether they like cuddles, playing with toys or just spending time with you, having a cat in your life is always worth it.
As for newborn kittens, wait until they are at least two weeks old. Kittens are much more susceptible to infections and diseases, and their mothers tend to be extra protective during the early stages. Touching young kittens may distress the mother cat. If you have to pick up a newborn, wash your hands and wear gloves.
It’s lovely having pets in our lives. But we have to remember that they are their own beings and don’t exist simply for human pleasure. Cats need consent to be touched—just like humans do! Learning your cat’s behaviour is the key to understanding when they’re in the mood for cuddles or not.