Why Do Cats Carry Their Kittens By The Scruff to Move Them

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  • It’s not just a kitten’s purr that set them apart from the rest in the animal kingdom. Newborn kittens are altricial. This means they can’t survive without the help of their mom or a human. Newborn kittens are unable to move around on their own and don’t start to walk until the third week of life.

    This is a sharp contrast to precocial animals, or animals that can stand and run within just a few hours of birth. Precocial animals include horses, sheep, deer, and gazelles among others.  

    Because of their vulnerability, the mother cat (queen) keeps her kittens safely hidden in a nest. Sometimes it will be necessary to relocate the nest to another location. This may be due to too much human interference, a predator nearby, or the kittens have outgrown the current nest. The mother cat can’t transport her kittens in her arms as we do. Instead, she carries her kittens in her mouth by the scruff of their neck. Once the kitten is mobile, the mother will carry them back to the nest if they stray too far. As the kitten moves into adolescence, this reflex behaviour diminishes.

    How do cats carry their kittens?

    Kittens can’t walk and move on their own for the first few weeks of life, so they’ll need Mama Cat to help them out. To do this, the queen will carry the kittens in her mouth by the extra skin located on the back of their neck, or the scruff. 

    Why is my cat moving her kittens around?

    If you notice your cat moving her kittens to a new location, she likely has a reason for her behavior. It’s best to not interfere with her motherly duties but you can help by providing a safe, comfortable place for her and her litter. Here’s why your cat might be moving her kittens. 

    1. She feels unsafe

    Provide your cat and her litter a safe spot away from loud noise and heavy foot traffic. Keep her litter box, food, and water nearby but not directly in her nesting space. If she feels threatened by other pets in the house, humans, or unusual noises she may choose to pick up her kittens and move elsewhere.

    2. It’s not warm enough 

    Kittens can’t regulate their own body temperature until around four weeks of age. That means it’s up to Mama Cat to keep her litter warm. If the room is too cold, a queen will move her kittens to a warmer spot. 

    3. Outgrowing the nest

    Kittens grow at a rapid rate, doubling in the first week of life. By the fourth week of life, kittens will be five times their birth weight. The queen may relocate her kittens to a larger nest as the kittens outgrow the one they were born in.

    4. Maternal neglect

    An inexperienced or stressed queen might neglect the care of her litter, including keeping them warm, grooming, or feeding them. In some cases, a queen will separate a weak or sick kitten from her litter and neglect to care for them. If you suspect maternal neglect, call your vet for care before interfering with mom’s care.

    Why do kittens freeze when being moved?

    Why do cats carry their kittens by the scruff?

    If the kitten struggled, the mother could drop or injure it, which could put the kitten at risk. Mother nature has ensured that the kitten instincively tucks up its legs, compacts the body, and becomes immobile when picked up by the mother. Researchers found that maternal carrying reduces body movement, heart rate, and crying in infant humans and mice. Mouse pups responded similarly when picked up by researchers. However, when a small amount of local anesthetic was administered, the immobilisation response was significantly reduced. This indicates that somatosensory (the ability to interpret sensation) as well as proprioception (awareness of the position and movement of the body) both come into play.

    Cats aren’t the only animals who carry their infants by the scruff, dogs, hedgehogs, squirrels, foxes, wolves and rodents also move their offspring this way.

    Can humans scruff cats?

    No, you shouldn’t pick up a kitten or adult cat by the scruff. Even queens will stop carrying kittens by the scruff after a few weeks of life. In fact, after a few weeks of life, research shows that kittens lose the reflex to go completely limp during scruffing. 

    In adulthood, cats will only experience scruffing during high-stress situations including mating, fighting, or when being attacked by a predator. A human grabbing a cat by the scruff can not only injure a cat, but cause stress. 

    Some veterinarians will restrain a cat during an examination by scruffing it. However, this technique is going out of favour with veterinarians moving to kinder and more gentle methods.

    Should I let my cat move her kittens?

    It’s important to provide a queen and her litter with a safe, warm area that is away from foot traffic and loud noises. If her nesting box isn’t located in an area that meets her and her kittens’ needs, the queen will move her kittensand for good reason. It’s best to let Mama Cat care for her kittens without human interference. Limit your interactions, especially during the first few weeks of life, to monitoring that the queen is properly grooming, feeding, and otherwise caring for her litter. If you suspect Mama Cat is not caring for her litter or only moving one kitten, you should contact your vet immediately. 

    Can an adult cat eat kitten food?

    Should I be worried if the mother cat is moving only one kitten?

    Maternal neglect in cats is relatively rare, with about eight percent of kittens passing from improper care by Mom. However, queens may ignore or move one or more kittens from the nest if she is overly stressed or if the kitten is sick. If a cat has moved one kitten from her nest, she may be in the process of moving all her kittens. It’s best not to interfere and intermittently check on the kittens without disturbing them. 

    If Mom has not moved the remainder of the kittens and the kitten is still alone, place the kitten back into the nesting box. If she continues to reject the kitten, call your vet for care. 

    Ways to help stop a cat from moving her kittens

    1. Limit human interaction

    Socialization is important for raising happy, healthy kittens. But the first few weeks of life should include limited human interactions. During the first weeks of life, the mother cat will take full responsibility for her kitten’s care. If you try to handle the newborn kittens, Mom might be aggressive towards you. Or worse, she may reject her kittens. After the first few weeks, you can begin helping to care for and interact with the kittens—as long as Mama Cat lets you. 

    2. Reduce noise 

    An ideal location for a queening box is in a low-traffic room will dim lighting. Excess noise from other pets, humans, or the environment can all cause stress and cause your cat to move her kittens. 

    3. Keep the room warm 

    Kittens can’t regulate their body temperature for the first weeks of life. So, a cold, draughty room will cause your cat to move her kittens. A kitten’s room should be kept around 80 – 85° Fahrenheit for the first couple of weeks of life. Provide Mom and kittens a warm bed with a towel or blankets. Keeping the bed inside an open crate with towels or blankets covering it will prevent draughts. 

    4. Keep the nest clean

    After giving birth, the towels and blankets in the nesting box should be replaced with clean ones. Between birth and four weeks of age, your cat will do all of the work of stimulating and cleaning up after the kittens. After that, kittens will begin exploring the litter box, going to the bathroom on their own, and grooming. If there are any accidents, help keep mom and her kittens happy and healthy by swapping out bedding and keeping their surroundings fresh and clean. 

    Frequently asked questions

    Can a mother cat hurt her kittens by carrying them?

    It’s unlikely a mother cat would hurt her kittens when carrying them by the scruff. Kittens have a reflex for the first few weeks of life that cause their bodies to go lax when mom grabs their extra skin at their neck, preventing stress or injury. 

    Why does my cat keep trying to move her kittens?

    Cats will move their kittens if the nesting box is too loud, cold, or unsafe. Provide your mother cat and her kittens with a warm room away from high-traffic areas. 

    Do male cats carry kittens by the scruff?

    Male cats aren’t known to care for their young. Some fosters of orphaned kittens have reported their male cats taking on a fatherly duty, but this is uncommon among the species. Male cats may grab kittens to move them for territorial reasons, but aren’t known to carry kittens by the scruff for the same reasons as a queen. 

    How long do cats carry their kittens by the scruff?

    Cats stop carrying their kittens by the scruff after the first few weeks of life when kittens begin walking on their own and lose the reflex to go limp. 

    Why did my cat move her kittens?

    Cats will move their kittens if the nesting box is too loud, cold, or unsafe. Provide your mother cat and her kittens with a warm room away from high-traffic areas. 

    What should you do with the kitten that’s been removed?

    If Mama Cat has moved one kitten from the nest, she may be in the process of moving all kittens. It’s best not to interfere and instead intermittently check on the kittens without disturbing them. If the mother cat has not moved the remainder of the kittens and the kitten is still alone, place the kitten back into the nesting box. If the queen continues to reject the kitten, call your vet for care. 

    How can you get a mother cat to move her kittens?

    Do not disturb the kitten nest, unless the kittens are in immediate danger. You can encourage a mother cat to move her kittens to a better location by providing a safe and warm nest in the preferred location. 

    Author

    • Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio