5 Keys to Picking Up and Holding Your Cat the Right Way
There are a few simple reasons your cat may be nervous being held or carried. Being held can encroach on her personal space, while being carried may make her feel unstable and in danger, while limiting her ability to move away or flee. No matter why your cat is uncomfortable, holding onto a struggling feline with claws and teeth bared can be a frightening experience for both cat and human. The good news is that there are handling and training tactics that can help boost your feline’s confidence and comfort level when you hold her — and put an end to the clawing and crying.
Use Positive Reinforcement Training
Teach your cat to remain calm when she’s being held by using rewards and positive reinforcement. A verbal cue, like “hold,” can be used to prepare your cat to be touched and lifted; give the cue and gently touch your cat’s side without lifting her at all.
When she stays still for this touch, mark with a “yes” and reward with food or play. As she gets comfortable with this touch, add movements of a hold, like gently grasping both sides of her body or scooping a hand behind her hind legs. When you’re ready to lift, pair the verbal cue with the action of picking her up; begin with short holds and minimal height. Reward her with petting or treats after each hold. As your cat gets more comfortable being held, slowly increase the time you spend holding her and reward her while you hold her. Go slowly with training, and be sure your cat stays relaxed.
Learn What Your Cat Likes
Cats vary widely when it comes to how they prefer to be held. Some cats are happy when you lift them from underneath, with your arms linked together to form a cradle of sorts, while others prefer to have their chest held against your torso, with their front paws resting on your shoulders or chest and their hind legs held securely under their back end. Some felines have unique — and unusual — preferences. My family had Siamese cats who were instantly calmed when cradled on their backs like infants. This is uncommon for cats, but our cats had been held this way since they were kittens and found it soothing.
Watch Your Step
Cats are sensitive to both how and where they are carried. For instance, a cat may be more likely to panic if she is carried past a ledge or on stairs, where the nearest escape route is far below her. A secure hold also makes a difference: Many cats can be terrified of being held by children, who can be less predictable and may have gripped them too tightly or dropped them in the past.
Another factor that may stress your cat is being afraid of where she is being taken. If the only time you pick her up is to put her in her crate and head to the vet, she may associate being held with going to the doctor. In this case, the situational fear — of being placed in a crate or going to the vet — needs to be addressed separately, before you can deal with the fear of being picked up or held.
Look for Alternatives to Holding
If your cat is overly anxious about being held in certain situations, such as being carried by a child, you can create the same closeness by substituting some other interaction for the holding: Have the child sit on the floor or in a chair and invite the cat onto his lap.
This minimizes the cat’s risk of falling and allows her to easily move away if she desires. Keep in mind that all interactions between children and cats should be supervised by an adult, to ensure everyone’s safety. When your cat needs to be moved, consider alternatives to lifting, such as using a food lure or toy, or teaching the cat to follow a target. And even around the house, a crate can be useful for relocating a fearful cat — just be sure to teach your cat to see her crate as a positive, safe space where she can relax.
Identify Your Cat’s Triggers
Some cats dislike being held because they associate it with other things they dislike. For many cat owners, holding is synonymous with petting, an activity some felines only tolerate or would rather avoid all together. This association may make your cat resist being picked up or held.
I once had a three-legged cat who loved being held, but sometimes he would put out his claws and try to jump down. After observing his behavior, I realized he was afraid of being dropped when I put him down, regardless of how close to the ground he was when I let go, because his missing front leg limited his ability to steady himself.
To address this, I stopped lowering him to the ground when I was done holding him; instead, I would release him onto something high enough that he could move forward out of my arms, rather than down, like a cat tree.
From there, he could climb confidently to the ground at his own pace. Finally, look for ways to create a calm atmosphere while you hold your cat by surrounding him with comforting scents. Drape a blanket that your cat has laid on across your chest while you hold the cat; the blanket will have her smell on it, which can be soothing.
You can also spray a calming pheromone like Feliway, or a soothing scent like lavender, directly on your shirt before you pick your cat up. If your cat still dislikes being held or carried even after you try these suggestions, talk to your veterinarian, who may recommend a veterinary behaviorist for help addressing the situation. It is possible that your cat may have underlying anxiety or a medical issue that is causing her to overreact to handling.
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