Visiting Veterinarian : By the scruff
Everybody recognizes the iconic image of a mother cat carrying a kitten in her mouth by the scruff of the neck. Nobody says, "Look how cruel that cat is being to her babies!" No. We smile indulgently at this display of maternal behavior. The same holds true when Mama unceremoniously squashes that kitten down with a paw, roughly licking it clean with a raspy tongue.
So when you bring your fragile feline flower, Calico Camille, to the veterinarian, is it okay when he or she restrains kitty by grasping the skin on the back of her neck? Called "scruffing" by people in the veterinary business, it's a bit of a controversial technique.
Now, I like cats a lot...and I think I handle them well. Admittedly there are a handful that I can't touch without the help of pharmaceuticals, but in general, cats and me, we get on famously. So I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately as I hear myself saying to my assistants things like "Go slower." "Try using just two fingers." "Less is more." What's the right way to handle a cat, especially in a stressful situation like the veterinarian's office?
The answer is that there is no one right way. Handling cats is a lot like caring for toddlers. It's all about watching closely and following their lead as to what works and what doesn't. Now and then a cat or kid is gonna have a full-blown hissy fit no matter what you do, but if you really pay attention to the subtle clues and adjust your approach appropriately, you can often get a cat to sit placidly on the exam table and a toddler to go happily off to bed. With the majority of cats, I like to start with a soft hold on the back of the neck. It seems to calm them. I'm not talking about clenching a fistful of skin with a death grip. "Two fingers," I tell my assistants. "Like a mama cat," I reassure nervous owners.
A study recently published in The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery has confirmed my experience. Researchers at The Ohio State University Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences in conjunction with a veterinary clinic in France did a simple study. Taking a small group of cats - 13 healthy and 18 with a bladder problem called idiopathic cystitis - they evaluated responses to standardized pressure on the scruff. Want to know what they used? I love this. Binder clips. That's right. You probably have some in your desk drawer right now. The researchers put one or two standard two-inch binder clips on the neck behind the ears. Each animal was tested four times, at one-month intervals, and rated for pinch-induced behavioral inhibition (PIBI). In other words, they checked to see how the clipping affected behavior.
What they discovered is that Mother Nature is smart. When Mama cat picks up Baby cat by the scruff, does Baby struggle or tense up? No. Baby relaxes and goes limp so Mama can cart her around easily. Any other response would be counterproductive, in a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest sense. Think about it. If Mama needs to move her litter quickly and quietly to avoid a predator, Baby better be cooperative and silent.
The cool thing is that this response persists into adulthood for many cats. The researchers found that almost all the cats responded to the clipping with variable degrees of immobilization and relaxation. Some even started to purr. And the positive response became more pronounced with each subsequent experience.
Don't believe it? Think they were just frozen with fear? The researchers thought of that. They examined the cats for the automatic physical symptoms that go along with pain or fear such as increased heart rate and respiration, elevated blood pressure or temperature, and dilated pupils. Nada. The cats were simply calm, content, and less fearful. The binder technique has been lovingly dubbed "Clipnosis" and the conclusion was drawn that gentle scruffing is a safe, humane, and effective mode of restraint for many cats. I could have told them that.
There are, however, a couple of caveats. First, some cats hate having their necks touched. I mean they really hate it. Maybe they have unresolved mommy issues. I don't know. Luckily, you can usually figure this out before you get hurt because the moment you so much as lay a finger on the first neck hair, these cats tense up so tight that there's no loose skin to grab anyway. This is often accompanied by the classic mad cat crouch with flattened ears and hissing. Even the least tuned-in of cat handlers gets the message. Skip the Clipnosis.
The second issue is owner perception. Veterinarians routinely perform all kinds of medical procedures using all kinds of standard restraint techniques. Many prefer not to do some of these in front of clients. Not because anything is inhumane, but because owners don't always stay emotionally detached or understand the necessity for certain actions. And sometimes, we are technically more proficient when we don't have to worry about anxious owners hovering nearby. It's like those TV dramas where the doctors unceremoniously oust family members from the patient's room, shouting "Let us do our jobs!"
Still, I'm not a big proponent of taking animals "into the back" for routine procedures. Perhaps it's because I'm a parent. I understand wanting to be with your babies, human or otherwise, to protect and reassure them. But my doctor side knows that I have on occasion been too busy paying attention to the animal and have missed an owner's reaction, ending up with a queasy human swooning in the exam room, or, worse, a disgruntled client leaving angry, feeling that we mishandled Camille.
If you have concerns with how your veterinarian restrains your pet, talk to us...but let us do our jobs. I'm not about to move the binder clips from the reception desk to the exam room, but if I hold Camille gently by the scruff, relax. It's just Mother Nature's natural tranquilizer.