Helping Guide Bengal Cat Owners

Why Cats Go Limp When Picked Up: Understanding the Feline Stress Response

When carrying your cat, you can tell its current mood with how they respond to it. Their body could be rigid or limp, but why does it happen? Why do cats go limp when you pick them up?

When picked up by their owners in their arms, cats go limp to relax. When picked up by the scruff, they become limp due to flexor reflex and avoid incurring injuries.

This article reveals why cats go limp when picked up and how to carry a cat safely to avoid disaster. Read more below!

Why Do Cats Become Limp When They Are Picked Up?

Whatever your cat’s response could be, they feel stressed whenever you do things with them such as petting, playing, and picking them up, but not all stress is bad.

When you carry your cat in your arms and it goes limp, your cat is relaxed around you. Picking up your cat by the scruff triggers a stress response, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling despite it being loose skin.

Kittens go limp when picked up by their mother at the back of their necks, referred to as the flexor reflex. For us, when the limb touches/holds something and the skin is hurt or harmed, the flexor muscle removes the limb from the source of harm.

It is speculated whether kittens are relaxed or fearful when picked up by the scruff because it is a vulnerable part of the body. In adult cats, scruffing elicits fear, uncertainty, and unease.

Read: Do Cats See Humans as Cats? An Exploration of Feline Cognition

Do Cats Get Stressed When You Pick Them Up?

It can be stressful for cats to be stroked or picked up when they are not wanted or enjoy it. Although many cats will enjoy being touched and carried, they may find this constant attention very stressful.

Being lifted off the ground and picked up frequently causes stress in many cats. A situation where someone might get scratched or bitten could arise if the cat is not used to being picked up. Injuries can occur to cats if they fall to the ground while trying to scramble out of a person’s grasp.

Always have a reason for picking up your cat; don’t insist on holding a struggling cat to coax her to give up or adjust. Be mindful of your cat’s tolerance levels. A squirmy, unhappy cat will grow to dislike being held the next time.

Read: Why Do Cats Age So Fast? Explaining the Rapid Aging of Cats

What Is the Safest Way to Carry a Cat?

Each cat has different preferences when picked up (or none at all), and you’d have to observe how your cat reacts when it’s picked up or handled. In general, there is a safe way to handle a cat…

  • When lifting them from one place to another, Dr. Uri Burstyn suggests that you pick them up with one hand under the chest and another under the abdomen. Don’t pick them up under the armpits and swing them around with no support on the lower half of their body. The feline will flail its paws about to find a better grip and you will get scratched.
  • When carrying them in your arms, Dr. Burstyn demonstrates it from 2:15 to 2:21 of the video below. You can hold the cat using one arm with the hand supporting the chest, but the rest of your arm is pressing the cat’s body to your side so it doesn’t fall.
  • When lifting them over your shoulder, lean close to the cat and let it climb over the shoulder. Support its bottom with one hand as the cat rests its chest on you. If you are worried it will jump off your back, use your free hand to squish the cat close to your body to stop the attempt.
  • When scruffing your cat, in Dr. Lindsay Butzer’s demonstration, make sure to grab the loose skin on the nape and lift the cat gently. Hold its bottom with one hand and bring it close to your body in case you fall or if you’re taking the feline away from a dangerous situation. Alternatively, scruff the cat with one arm and with another, support it under its chest while squishing the rest of its body with the same arm to keep it steady. See 3:49 to 4:00.
  • When cradling your cat, put your arm on its bottom and spine and the other arm around its shoulders. Carry your feline with its head on your breast like you would a baby but the cat’s stomach isn’t facing the air; it should be close to your abdomen area. See 2:37 to 2:46 for Dr. Butzer’s demonstration.

Read: Why Do Cats Fight at Night?

Is There a Wrong Way to Carry a Cat?

Carrying your cat the wrong way doesn’t only make the cat uncomfortable but also results in claws being drawn out against you. Dr. Burstyn recommends avoiding holding your cat by the armpits or under the chest without additional support on the other half of the body.

Don’t swing the cat around when you’re not handling it properly. Don’t carry them under the abdomen, where the organs aren’t protected by a skeletal structure, unlike the chest.

Do Cats Like Being Picked Up Like a Baby?

Your cat might love being picked up and placed on its back in your arms, but many cats aren’t comfortable with this position. In a loving pet-owner relationship, the cat may grow to like and even ask for the owner to be picked up like a baby.

If your cat has back pain, they may not appreciate this… If the cat has a sore back, they may resent this,” Dr. Burstyn explains in his video. “This is a very good way to carry a cat that you trust, and a cat that trusts you.” Doing it to an unhappy and unwilling cat is very risky. It has easier access to your face and will happily scratch or bite.

Read: Why Are Cats Not Always Landing on Their Feet?

How Do Cats Feel When You Carry Them?

Cats usually tolerate a lot of things we do to them, but they’ll let us know quickly if they don’t like it, and surely, you have been on the receiving end of a feline’s spiteful swat with its paw. Cats who weren’t picked up a lot when they were kittens will find it a very vulnerable position and they won’t like it.

When your cat lies limp in your arms with its belly in the air, you know you won its trust. It may even ask you to carry it more often than you’d like!

What Breed of Cat Goes Limp Once Picked Up?

There is an adorable cat breed that is so docile it goes limp when picked up. Ragdoll cats are affectionate, calm, social, and have a “go-with-the-flow” type of personality. This breed has just been recently introduced back in 1963.

American cat breeder, Ann Baker, bred her white-coated queen, Josephine, and several tomcats whose traits produced a big feline with bright blue eyes, point markings, a silky coat, and an affectionate and laidback personality.

The accurate tale of this cat mostly includes speculations but we are confident of its very docile nature that Baker thought it fitting to call the breed Ragdoll.

Read: Why Do Cats Arch Their Back When They’re Scared or Anxious? Here’s the Explanation


Cats come in different breeds, each with its distinct personality. Some cats enjoy interacting and being picked up by humans, while others do not. When scruffed, cats go limp to allow for safe transport because moving around can cause discomfort and injury.

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