Fear Free Tips for Picking Up and Holding a Cat
Some cats can panic when held if they feel unsafe or threatened. And holding a feline who may have her claws and teeth engaged as she struggles to break free can be an unsettling experience for both of you.
There’s plenty for a cat to be concerned about. For starters, being held can take away a cat’s ability to escape. In the veterinary hospital or at the grooming facility, a cat may feel uncomfortable and threatened when held in place to be physically manipulated. Or when picked up and carried, the feline may panic out of anticipation of where she’s being taken to, like the crate.
And many times when a cat is carried, she lacks grip, balance and proper orientation to the ground, creating a situation where the cat may feel at risk of falling. And, no, cats don’t always land on their feet. In fact, when held at a lower height to the ground in a person’s arms, a cat can have greater difficulty righting herself in the air than she does when she has more height and therefore time to twist and land correctly should she fall.
You may not have a cuddly cat who wants to be held all the time. But with use of the following handling tactics, most cats can transition from scared to serene when picked up.
- Teach your cat to be held in a gradual manner. You can do this by pairing a word, like “hold,” with being held. The word lets your cat anticipate what’s going to happen rather than create anxiety of the unknown. Start where your cat is comfortable. For some felines, training may start just with touching her side or putting gentle pressure on both sides without lifting. Reward calm, nonstruggling behavior with a “yes” and something your cat finds fabulous, like a favorite treat or a play session. For some felines, the greatest reward for calm can be the release of pressure and giving space. Practice numerous times to ensure your cat is comfortable before progressing to a lift or longer hold. If your cat panics, make the next try less stressful, such as touching without holding, standing still while she’s held instead of walking, or holding for a shorter period of time.
- Cater to your cat’s preference when it comes to holding positions. Some cats like being held from underneath with both arms linked together to create a cradle of sorts. Other cats are accustomed to their chest being up against their person’s torso with their front paws resting on the shoulders or chest and back legs and bottom securely held in the person’s arms. In some cases, unique preferences exist, like our Siamese cats who, unlike most cats, preferred being held on their backs like babies, as they’d been accustomed to since kittenhood.
- When holding, try to provide a steady, balanced surface for your cat to lean into and keep a secure hold on your cat. Many cats are uncomfortable when held by children, because they’re less predictable and may hold the cat either too tightly or too loosely. Consider alternatives to holding that still provide closeness. Inviting your cat onto a child’s lap while the child sits on the floor or in a chair, and rewarding with things your cat likes, such as treats, is almost always preferred to being held. Additionally, allowing your cat to move away when she wants can decrease her stress and reduce the chance of a negative interaction.
- Another reason cats may panic when held is because they’re sensitive to what might happen or where they’re being taken. Your cat may associate holding with being taken to be groomed, to the car or being put in her crate. In such cases, changing your cat’s perception of these events and holding her in situations outside of the ones perceived as negative can decrease stress. If your cat is sensitive to petting while being held, for instance, separately teach her that petting can be enjoyable. My three-legged cat, Nemo, liked being held but nervously anticipated being set down. His anxiety seemed rooted in fear of falling and being unable to catch himself, especially because he had only one front paw. His fear was eased by letting him step out of my arms onto something roughly the same height, like the bed or his perch, rather than lowering him down to the ground.
- You can also try alternatives to holding when your cat needs to be moved. Coax your cat to follow using a food lure, treat trail or wand toy. Or teach her to willingly follow by training "come" or "target." Crates can also be conditioned as a safe space and used for transport.