How to pick up a cat correctly

how to pick up a cat
(Image credit: Getty)

Most of us want to cuddle a kitty but knowing how to pick up a cat safely is an important thing to know. 

Do it incorrectly and you could end up causing discomfort or maybe even an injury. You can also create a feeling of anxiety in cats, potentially damaging your relationship with them. It's vital, then, that you learn the correct technique.

In doing so, both you and your cat will benefit. Aside from cementing the bond between you both and having a reassuring snuggle, being able to pick up a cat means you can take them to vet, check for any problems and maybe even let them accompany you on your travels. You often need to pick up a cat to pop them into their carrier too.  

Below, we walk you through the correct way to pick up your feline friend, including whether it's okay to use the scruff of their neck and what to do about a cat that doesn't want to be held. 

What is the correct way to pick up a cat?

Woman holding a black cat

(Image credit: Getty)

First of all, you need to time it right. A good way to tell if a cat is in the mood is by understanding why cats wag their tails and learning the vital signs – if a moggy's tail is pointing straight up, then you're definitely in luck! You then need to approach slowly and steadily. If you appear unpredictable, a cat is going to flinch and either run away or issue a warning.

Once you're close, you need to place one of your hands under the cat's body and behind the front legs. The other hand needs to support the back legs and hind quarters. The key is to ensure you have a full hold and control at which point you can gently and slowly lift. Keep the cat close to your chest and make sure the hind quarters are then supported within the crook of your arm.

Your cat just rests on your chest, their head close to yours and their bottom within your arm at which point you just need to know how to carry a cat

A cat may dig its claws into your shoulder to hold on and if they do, just gently stroke and reassure your cat that they're safe and secure. When lowering to return to the ground, bend your body towards the floor and ensure their four legs are close to the ground before gently releasing.

Does picking up a cat hurt them?

If you pick up a cat correctly, you shouldn't cause them any harm – the way described above is a safe and comfortable way of picking up and holding a cat. But that's not to say you can't cause mental harm. It's crucial you time it right otherwise a cat can become fearful. 

You also need to be in tune with your cat and understand that they have their limits. While they will tolerate being picked up for a short spell, prolong that time and they'll feel stressed and they may even lash out. Start by picking up a cat for a few minutes at first and make the sessions a little longer over time.

How do you pick up a cat who doesn't want to be picked up?

The truth is, cats don't like being held. Sure, they'll let you do it but they're only being tolerant. So if you have a cat who doesn't want to be picked up, don't worry, it's totally normal. They don't love you any less and they are still interested in you. The trick is simply to make them feel at ease.

You can do this by learning how to pet cats properly and spend time engaging with them before you attempt to hold them. Grab the best cat toys and spend some time grooming them (discover how often you should brush your cat first, though) 

But don't force things. Allow your cat to feel comfortable and be aware that some breeds simply don't like being picked up.

Cat outside being stroked on the head

(Image credit: Getty)

Is it OK to pick up a cat by the scruff of their neck?

No. Although it is often said you should restrain a cat by picking them up by the scruff of their neck – following the way their mother will carry them – this only works when they are kittens. Very young cats naturally go limp when they're in this position and their mothers know exactly how much pressure to apply.

Trouble is, you don't, and adult cats don't go limp when picked up this way either. You're whipping away their sense of control and causing them to become scared and stressed. They can't run away from this position and it's unlikely to be a pain free experience either. You could potentially cause muscle damage so again, the answer to this question is no!

Why do cats hate being held?

In the same way cats don't like being held by the scruff of their neck, picking up and carrying a moggy takes away their control. A cat doesn't really know what you're doing and they're going to find it hard to escape. It would be the same for you. Imagine a big giant walking over to you and deciding to suddenly whip you into the air. Even if the giant has done this many times, you may still wonder what's coming next.

A well-socialized cat will be less resistant, though, and if the outcome of being picked up is generally positive – taking them to their food bowl to indulge in the best cat food afterwards, perhaps – then they may not hate it quite so much. 

Just be gentle and soothing and put a cat back down on the ground if you feel they are struggling or you get wind of any signs of distress. And if your cat really hates being held, just restrict those times to vet visits.

David Crookes

David Crookes has been a journalist for more than 20 years and he has written for a host of magazines, newspapers, websites and books including World of Animals, BBC Earth, Dogs and Canines, Gadget and The Independent. Born in England, he lives in a household with two cats but he’s also keenly interested in the differences between the huge number of dog breeds — in fact, you can read many of his breed guides here on PetsRadar. With a lifelong passion for technology, too, he’s always on the lookout for useful devices that will allow people to spend more time with their pets.