Cat Friendly Handling: A "How To" Guide to Decrease Fear, Anxiety and Stress in the Cats That You Handle

Co-written by Dr. Liz Bales and Tabitha Kucera CCBC, RVT, KPA-CTP (Pictured above)


Cats are the most popular pet in America, and yet see less of them at the vet every year. Why? Cat parents reported that they found veterinary visits to be stressful for themselves and for their cats. Cats were fearful of the carrier, the travel, the office itself and the experience of being handled by the veterinarian and the veterinary staff. As a result, cat parents avoided taking their cat to the vet. 

Feline specialists set out to find new techniques to improve every part of this experience, and the Cat Friendly Handling movement was born. And now, we will share these techniques with you. They will change the way you interact with cats and how cats respond to you. They will improve your practice.

Many of us in feline medicine are still taught to restrain cats with the same techniques as we did when we thought that they did not feel pain. We are in the habit of just “getting the job done.” But, now we know that they do feel pain, and they do experience anxiety and fear. We have made great strides in improving pain management, and now we are improving our feline handling practices.

What is the Cat Friendly Handling movement?

Handling cats in a way that respects their instincts and innate needs leads to decreased fear and stress. In many cases, Cat Friendly Handling can lead to decreased aggression. First, you need a broad understanding of feline behavior and body language, that is then used to evaluate each individual cat and tailor the techniques used to their needs.

Goals of Cat Friendly Handling as defined by ISFM

✜ Reduce fear and pain for the cat 

✜ Reinforce veterinarian–client–cat bond, trust and confidence, and thus better lifelong medical care for the cat 

✜ Improve efficiency, productivity and job satisfaction for the veterinary team

✜ Increase client compliance

✜ Timely reporting and early detection of medical and behavioral concerns

✜ Fewer injuries to clients and the veterinary team

✜ Reduced anxiety for the client


Reading Feline Body Language

This is a case of “a picture is worth a thousand words." Thanks to Cattle Dog Publishing for this great infographic to help us see the signs of feline anxiety.

Why Do Cats Act Like That?  

A cat sees the world, and reacts to it, in a very different way than a human does. These are the basic reasons why cat behavior is so different.  

✜ Solitary hunters

Cats are solitary hunters that are designed to hunt and eat alone.  While they may choose to live in social groups, called colonies, they do not require them for survival.  Additionally, they are averse to cats outside of their social group.

✜ Predators but also prey

Cats are prey. So, cats are constantly and subtly checking out their surroundings for danger. They feel most secure when they can choose how to survey their environment, and then figure out how to stay safe. Cats have the instinct climb to a height and/or hide in an enclosed space to feel safe and secure, even when the threat of being eaten by something in our living room or exam room is pretty low.

✜ Prefer avoidance to conflict

Cats do not want to fight. They will try to get away from a bad situation, instead of confronting it. 

✜ Fearful of immediate and direct contact, loud noises and rough handling

Cats are most comfortable with soft voices, and gentile contact. Cats prefer initiate contact, rather than have us reach for them. 

✜ Can become fearful/aggressive if touched in areas other than head and neck

When we do touch cats, they prefer to be touched on the head and neck, rather than the body or the stomach

✜ May freeze, rather than react aggressively, when in extreme distress

Use these “think like a cat” facts to guide your interactions. Let the cat choose where to be examined in the room. Create locations that are convenient for you to work in that also meet the instinctive need a cat has to climb and hide to feel safe -  like the bottom of their carrier, a cardboard box, under a towel and/or up on a cat tree that is no taller than your preferred examination height. 

All cats are individuals. Assess the cats body language and be flexible with handling techniques based on the cat's individual preference. Allow the cat to maintain its chosen position and vary your touch with the cat's response. 


No Scruffing

For many of us, scruffing was the only restraint technique that we were ever taught. We were told that it mimicked the way that cats restrain each other and was therefor the preferred method.

Now we know better. Cats are only grabbed by the scruff on their neck in limited circumstances: by their mother during the first few weeks of life, during mating, while fighting, and when they are being attacked by a predator. None of these situations are helpful to mimic in a home, veterinary, or shelter setting.

Scruffing is more likely to cause fear and stress, which can result in aggressive behavior. Remember, we now know that cats prefer to avoid conflict rather than to face it. Scruffing entirely removes the cat's options to retreat and their sense of control. Your attempt to restrain a cat by the scruff may actually increase the likelihood of you and/your co-workers getting hurt.

Additionally, lifting a cat or suspending their body weight by the scruff is unnecessary and could be painful. Don't do that!


Use Food to Ease Fear In the Veterinary Office

Food is your friend. Food treats smeared on the table, towel or even onto a toy will be happily distract the cat while you perform your exam, and even while you give vaccines. Be prepared with a variety of flavors, textures, and smells.  Many cats enjoy whipped cream, tuna, easy cheese, anchovy paste, and even cut up cucumber!

Once the cat chooses a favorite, make a note of it in the record for next time. 

Use a Towel to Ease Fear In the Veterinary Office

  • Place a towel over the carrier and over the cage door can limit stimuli which, in a fearful cat, reduces fear
  • Put a towel over a non-slip mat on the exam table and in cages to provide a soft and comfortable surface
  • Put towels in the carrier to provide a familiar smell for cat and for a soft and comfortable surface to lay on  
  • Use a towel as a tool for restraint 
    • Many towel restraint techniques can be used for cats, including blanket wraps; burrito, half-burrito, and scarf wraps. The varied techniques allow accessibility to different areas of the patient for different procedures. 
    • All towel restraint methods require practice and patience
  • Use towels to transfer fearful cats safely out of their carriers 
This "How To" blog is just the start.  There is a lot of CE available to learn about and practice Cat Friendly Handling.  We call it “practicing” medicine because we are always practicing and improving.  When you know better, you do better! 
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