Pet Articles

Scruffing Cats and Dogs

What is a dog or cat’s scruff? The scruff is the loose skin present behind the animal’s neck. It serves many purposes for both the animal and its owner. Although not generally advised for humans due to the potential for injuring your pet, grasping an animal by the scruff of its neck promotes submissive behaviour in the animal. This is a natural behaviour that is learned by kittens and puppies during the neonatal period.

Scruffing is used by a mother to pick up her kittens/puppies. A mother cat picks up her kittens by the scruff of their neck to carry them from one place to another.

You may notice as the baby is lifted off the ground, it automatically becomes limp and the animal seems immobilized as it is being carried.

This is a natural reflex of neonatal animals and helps facilitate the transporting process. When the kitten is released, the mother cat will lick her kitten to comfort it.

As the animal ages, it will continue to be submissive when held by the scruff. In general, dogs and cats should not be lifted primarily by the scruff of the neck because it is a dominant behaviour. They should be lifted with two hands to support the weight – i.e. one under the animal’s arms, and the other under the rump. Particularly, as the animal ages and gets larger, it should not be lifted off the ground using only its scruff because the heavy weight of the rest of the body will cause excess strain on the loose skin and may be painful. In adult animals, scruffing should be done gently for training or restraint purposes, and only by those that know what they are doing. It would be best to consult a trainer or your veterinarian for a demonstration.

Scruffing is used as a form of communication between animals and is an indication of dominance. For example, when two dogs are fighting, the dominant dog may grab the other by the scruff, telling the other dog that he is the dominant one. Dominance is also demonstrated by other behaviours as well, such as direct stares or mounting behaviour. Another example where scruffing is used as a form of communication would be when a mother dog disciplines her puppy when it is misbehaving. She will glare at the puppy, then scruff and shake for a quick moment to make it clear that the behaviour was inappropriate.

Scruffing can be used for dog training purposes, but again do not try to scruff a puppy without a demonstration from a professional. Essentially, you will be imitating what the dog’s mother would have done if the puppy misbehaved. This is done by scruffing the dog and shaking gently while saying “no” firmly. Maintain direct eye contact with the dog to convey the message that you are scolding him/her. From puppy-hood, the dog will understand the scruff and shake as a reprimand and will eventually learn to associate it with the verbal “no”. After a few times, just saying “no” with a direct glare should be enough to reprimand the dog. You must keep in mind that a mother dog or cat will NEVER hurt their puppy or kitten using this technique. So if you as the owner hurt the puppy or kitten by improperly using this technique, you can cause physical and/or psychological damage to your pet. The importance of timing the reprimand correctly must be emphasized. The reprimand must be done at the same time that the offending action is performed. For example, if a dog is caught in the act of urinating on the carpet, the owner can immediately intervene and reprimand him/her. If the dog is scolded after the deed is done, he/she will not associate the act of urination with the scolding. At best, the dog will associate the smell or sight of urination with you getting upset.

It should be emphasized that scruffing should be done gently to prevent injury to the animal by grabbing too tightly or shaking too vigorously. It should not be used as an attempt to gain dominance over an animal because this could lead to elevated aggression or fear. For example, a very submissive or fearful dog will not benefit from scruffing as a training tool because the dog will become even more fearful of the handler. Aggressive dogs may not even allow you to get close enough to scruff them. But if you are able to scruff them, do not assume that you are completely safe from their jaws. You may be surprised how well some determined animals can squirm and twist. Attempting to scruff a frustrated or aggressive animal will just serve to frustrate it more. Scruffing should be reserved for confident dogs that need minor disciplinary action or when first training a new puppy. Remember that you are trying to imitate what the puppy’s mother would have done. The mother would not physically abuse the dog or yell furiously at it. The dog will not understand what exactly you are angry about. Scruffing should be used as a disciplinary tool, not a form of punishment.

It may also be used to separate two pets which are fighting. Although you should not physically interfere with two animals that are in a brawl, there are moments when the two animals may pause momentarily between attacks. At those moments, you may be able to control one of them to stop the fight. For example, if two feline housemates are fighting and they separate momentarily, you may grasp the aggressor by its scruff and hold the cat down as the less dominant cat has an opportunity to flee the scene. While the cat is being scruffed, he/she will immediately relax into a more submissive position. You may further emphasize your point by saying “no” firmly. You are not only dissipating the fight, but you are disciplining the dominant cat and teaching it that fighting is an inappropriate behaviour. Once the aggressive cat has calmed down, you may release and talk to him/her gently. You may also stroke the cat at this time as a mother cat would after disciplining her kitten.

Scruffing is also seen during feline copulation, when the male grabs the female by the scruff. This is done to immobilize her while he mounts and to prevent her from running away as the mating process takes place.

Since scruffing promotes submissive behaviour in the animal, people can use this technique for animal restraint purposes. For example scruffing an animal during medical procedures, such as blood sampling, allows for more control of the animal’s head and less risk of people being bitten.

Scruffing has a quite a few purposes in the animal world. For us, it serves as a useful tool for discipline and restraint purposes. Care must be taken to avoid using it as an easy tool to acquire dominance, because it may lead to fear or increased aggression. As well, many other factors determine dominance in a hierarchy and scruffing is only one minor part.

By Amy Cheung – writer

4 Responses to this Article, So Far

  1. Hi I have just started up a dog boarding, training and walking business in London. Last week I got 5 new puppy clients to day board/walk. When I took them out for a walk I picked them up half way to the park as they are not old enough to get there and back yet. However, I was suprised that on 2 separate occassions (with 2 different puppies) that they shook when being carried. Do you know why this is as I am totally perplexed?

  2. Scruffing as a means of modifying behavior is inadvisable. It can lead to aggression, and we have much more appropriate means of behavior modification. What’s worse is promulgating the idea of dominance in dog training and behavior modification. The AVSAB advises against this:

  3. Avatar Ian Kelley says:

    My pug enjoys scruffing. I scruff him then feed him for the positive association.

  4. Avatar Celia Haddon says:

    Do NOT scruff dogs or cats, unless you are handling ferals or strays. When they are no longer puppies, the weight of the animal is too much. The animal;s weight should always be supported front and back. This stuff about dominance and puppyhood is just folklore. Be humane. Scruffing dogs with flat faces can actually make their eyes pop out.

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