Tag Archives: low stress handling

If you’ve ever worked in a shelter or veterinary setting, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve spent some time scruffing cats. Maybe you’ve taken your cat to the vet and the veterinary staff placed your cat in a “scruff-hold.” For those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about, scruffing is a way of restraining cats, by holding them firmly by the loose skin at the back of the neck. For some cats, this type of handling restricts their movement, which can facilitate handling and various procedures like getting a blood sample. Although scruffing is still a common way to handle cats in veterinary clinics, there is increasing resistance to using this type of handling.

Mother cat carrying kitten. Photo by Margo Akermark via Wikimedia Commons.

Scruffing likely came into fashion because it resembles the way that mother cats handle their kittens – carrying them by the back of their neck. When the momcat does this, kittens are immobilized and likely easier for mom to relocate. Immobility in other species (such as rabbits and rodents) when scruffed is attributed to anti-predator behavior. Scruffing adult cats can have similar effects (induced immobility), although not in all cats. Because the lack of movement experienced by cats during scruffing may be due to fear, rather than a relaxed state, many individuals and organizations are calling for veterinary staff to embrace other handling techniques for cats.

International Cat Care and the American Association of Feline Practitioners have released statements that scruffing should either not be performed, or should not be the routine, “default” method of handling cats who visit a vet clinic. Other organizations, such as the ASPCA, emphasize other methods of cat restraint. Various certifications are now available for training in low-stress handling, fear-free veterinary practice, and cat-friendly practices.

Now this is all well and good, but as can happen, sometimes people endorse a practice without a strong evidence base. Until the past few months, there have been few published studies related to cat restraint, and whether or not certain handling methods are truly stressful to cats. Dr. Carly Moody devoted her dissertation research to the exploration of various aspects of cat restraint. I blogged about two of her other studies recently, and now she’s got a new paper, hot off the presses, looking at three types of cat restraint.  In “Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips” published in Veterinary Record, scruffing, clipping, and full-body restraint were compared with passive restraint to see whether they led to stress responses in cats.

Fifty-two shelter cats were tested; all cats experienced passive restraint as a control and ONE of the other forms of restraint. Some cats were held with passive restraint first, and others received the experimental condition first, to control for any order effects of being handled. Cats were first assessed as either friendly or unfriendly (I’d prefer a term like avoidant!) by measuring their approach and response to a stranger and being petted, before the restraint methods were tested.

Photo by Moody et al, from the published manuscript.

In passive restraint (a), cats were handled with minimal pressure and were allowed to stay in the position they preferred. Full-body restraint (b) involved holding the cat on its side, while holding the legs and not allowing much movement. In the scruff condition (c), cats were held by the skin at the back of the neck and was allowed only minimal movement. Finally, in the clip conditionm(d), two Clipnosis clips were applied to the back of the cat’s neck. Clipnosis clips resemble binder clips, and are a way to scruff “hands-free.” All cats were restrained by the same person in the animal shelter’s clinic facility.

The stress measures included ear movement, respiration rate, pupil dilation, lip licking and vocalizations. The results showed that cats undergoing full-body restraint had a higher respiration rate and more vocalizations. Full-body restraint and clips led to more pupil dilation, and all three tested restraint methods led to more ear movements when compared with passive restraint. To summarize, full-body restraint and clips were the most stressful, and scruffing also led to more stress responses when compared to passive restraint. Three indicators of stress (respiration rate, pupil dilation, and ear movements) were consistent with the previous work from this lab. Based on this study, the authors recommend that people do not use full-body or clip restraint, and that scruffing should not be a default method of handling cats.

A few potential weaknesses of the study include the fact that they did not do any medical procedures on the cats to see if there was any relationship between the type of restraint and cat’s behavior during an exam. The full-body restraint involved laying the cats on their side, which was different from the other three conditions, where the cat was typically upright. It is difficult to say whether it was the restraint or the body position that might have led to the stress response.

An example of scruffing plus full-body restraint.

Finally, MY personal experience, is that most handlers who scruff cats, simultaneously place them on their sides in some type of full-body restraint. So it is possible that some people will think that because scruffing was not as stressful as the other tested modes of restraint, that it’s perfectly fine to utilize this form of handling with nary a second thought. It would be great to include this type of handling (scruff + restraining the body) in a future study – it is possible that combining the two techniques is even more stressful than just using one alone.

Scruffing doesn’t prevent biting; many veterinarians have been bitten by cats in practice, and since most clinics (perhaps until recently) likely use scruffing to restrain cats, it is obviously therefore not a guarantee of safety. However, it is a habit that many may find hard to break, especially if they are used to and comfortable scruffing, and not as experienced or comfortable using other methods, such as towel-wrapping or chemical restraint (drugs). Many years ago, when I worked in an animal shelter and handling a lot of cats, I was doing a lot of scruffing! That was the norm. In my current work situation, I’m not routinely restraining cats anymore. But if I were back in that position, I’d be ready to try something different.

At the School of Veterinary Medicine at UC Davis, we teach a cat handling lab to first year students, and the mantra is “EBY – Even Better Yet” – what can we do better to handle animals safely, and in a manner that is likely to reduce stressful responses in the present and during future veterinary visits. These students have typically been trained to scruff cats by default. Sometimes they express resistance to trying something new; but hopefully with practice and increasing evidence that scruffing increases stress, they will get more comfortable with other, less-stressful techniques.

Kitty in a towel wrap. Photo by Kerri Lee Smith via Flickr/Creative Commons License https://www.flickr.com/photos/77654185@N07/26719456934

I was recently inspired when my friend Ellen Carozza, LVT told me that her veterinary practice has been “scruff-free” for almost 20 years. And she still has all of her fingers! She has been a strong advocate for providing cats with a safe and low-stress experience at the vet clinic, and has excellent videos of how the staff at her clinic handle “difficult” or “aggressive” cats, including several types of towel wraps. It’s hard to argue with 20 years of proof that it’s not necessary for effective treatment of cats (when we tell the first year vet students that there are scruff-free cat clinics, it blows their minds!). But think of it this way – if aversive restraint techniques were just not allowed or available to you – what would you do instead? And now it’s hard to argue with the mounting scientific evidence that when it comes to handling cats, “less is more.”

 

Reference

Moody, CM.Mason, GJ.Dewey, CE.Niel, L.
(2019) Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips

For many cat owners, there’s nothing more stressful than getting their cat to the vet. And it’s not necessarily the vet visit the pet parent minds so much as getting their cat into the cat carrier. In one study, the stress of getting cats to the veterinarian was cited as a reason many people don’t EVEN BOTHER taking their cat to the doctor for a regular checkup.

Perhaps this is where your cats like to hang out when it's time to go to the vet? Photo via Creative Commons at https://www.flickr.com/photos/jon_a_ross/3215684326

Make one move toward the closet, or the garage door, perhaps you’re already sweating bullets…your cat picks up on the signs…and then before you know it, they have tucked themselves deeply underneath your bed, just out of reach. If you’re lucky, perhaps you can grab and pull out your cat without being bitten or scratched; some of you might even resort to scaring your cat out from under the bed with a broom or vacuum (I wish I was kidding, but all the above happen all too frequently). You might even have to just cancel that vet appointment at the last minute…

How did we get here? Why are so many people resorting to such heavy-handed, fear-inducing, traumatic methods to put a cat in a box (I thought cats loved boxes?). Methods that no doubt will make the whole process even harder next time around?

The first challenge is the pervasive disbelief that we can train cats at all, much less train them to willingly go into a cat carrier. Second, is getting information on training techniques to cat owners so they can know where to start!

A new study tested the effects of a carrier training protocol on signs of stress in cats while being transported in a car and then examined in a veterinary office. The study, Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice, conducted at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, Austria, was recently published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science.

Researchers tested 22 cats. Each cat was individually taken into a new room and given 5 minutes to adjust. Next the carrier was placed on the floor and the cat was given 3 minutes to enter voluntarily, at which point they were placed in the carrier. All cats were given treats during the 10-minute car ride across campus to the veterinary exam. The cats were kept in a waiting room for 5 minutes, then brought into a separate room for an exam. Cats were given 3 minutes to exit the carrier on their own, at which point the carrier was dismantled and the examination was conducted in the bottom half of the cat carrier.

You can get your cat cozy in their carrier!

The cats were split into 2 groups, with half of the cats receiving “carrier training” which consisted of 7 steps. To summarize the steps:

  1. Presenting the cat with just the bottom half of the carrier, and giving the cats treats when they approach or get in the carrier; luring them closer to carrier with treats if they wouldn’t approach on their own
  2. Repeating step one with the top and door added, with the door open, rewarding any approach or entering, as well as any calm behavior in the carrier
  3. Moving and closing the door while the cat is inside, tossing treats into the carrier through the front door
  4. Picking up the carrier for short periods at first, gradually increasing the time the carrier is lifted with the cat secured inside, rewarding the cat for calm behavior
  5. Carrying the cat to the car, offering tuna while in the carrier in the car
  6. Turning on the engine, offering tuna
  7. Short car rides, gradually increasing the time in the car (up to 3 minutes), paired with food, petting and verbal praise

Each cat was given a total of 28 training sessions over the course of 6 weeks. Three of 11 cats made completed all seven stages, with six cats getting to stage 7 and two cats to stage 6.  The control group of cats did not receive any type of training before the second veterinary exam, which was the next part of the study.

The researchers measured stress using the “Cat Stress Score,” a commonly used measure of feline behaviors and postures that suggest whether a cat is relaxed, tense or fearful. A camera was placed in the cat carrier to observe the cats’ behaviors during the car ride, and temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate were measured during the vet exam. It was also noted whether cats entered their carriers willingly, whether they left the carrier by themselves during the exam, and whether they showed fearful or aggressive behaviors during the veterinary exam.

Photo by David Martyn Hunt via Creative Commons license at https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidchief/5912515514

Results showed that all cats had a lowered stress score during the car ride to the second veterinary exam; but cats in the training group experienced a much larger reduction in stress scores. Cats in the training group were more likely to show behaviors such as kneading or rubbing against the carrier. Cats with carrier training were able to be examined more quickly, although they were not more likely to leave the carrier on their own.

Not all behaviors were affected by the training; for example, there were no differences between groups on any of the physiological measures of stress (respiratory rate, heart rate, temperature). There were also no differences between the two groups in stress scores during the time in the waiting room or during the exam. It should also be noted that even though the cats were randomized into either a training or control group, 7 out of 11 of the cats in the training group went into the carrier on their own right from the get-go, whereas only 4 of the cats in the control group did, suggested that there may have been some personality differences or different experiences or associations with carriers between the two groups. Finally, because the study used laboratory cats, we don’t yet know how precisely this would apply to cats in homes…is someone getting on that study???

But, THIS study does provide evidence for the power of positive training! With just a few weeks of short training sessions, cats showed less stress during a car ride in a carrier and were easier to examine by a veterinarian. Those sound like two major improvements for cats to me! If you need more advice on how to train YOUR cat to love their carrier, here are a few resources I like:

Reference: Pratsch, L., Mohr, N., Palme, R., Rost, J., Troxler, J., & Arhant, C. (2018). Carrier training cats reduces stress on transport to a veterinary practice. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

This blog post is part of the 2018 #Train4Rewards Blog Party. See what the fun is all about by clicking on the image below!