Scruff Bag

The arguments for and against holding a cat by the scruff have already been discussed in the Cat Management section, so I will not repeat them here. Each rescuer must craft his own policy regarding the practice, but for those who are willing to use it at least sparingly, the scruff-bag technique is an effective, safe, and quick way to secure the cat. The scruff bag technique is suitable when:

  • You can get within comfortable reach of the cat and 
  • The cat allows you to pet him and
  • You have enough space and reach to lift him off his perch and
  • The cat cannot be secured using gentler means

Once you determine that you are going to use the scruff bag to secure the cat, first be sure to get into a position that allows you to reach the cat comfortably and gives you enough unobstructed space to move the cat, if necessary, and invert the bag over him without snagging the bag on interfering limbs. Ideally, you should approach the cat from the back, that is, your forearm should be aligned roughly parallel with the cat’s back. If the bag is designed with the glove or hand opening closer toward one side of the bottom, this should also align the cat properly centered in the bottom of the bag once the bag is inverted over him. Visualize the position of the cat inside the bag once it is inverted to be sure you are holding the bag in the proper position.

If the only way you can approach the cat is face-to-face, then your arm will be over the cat’s head leaving you more vulnerable to getting clawed and bitten if the cat should become hostile. In most cases, you can still successfully bag him from the front, but you should be aware of your vulnerability and sure of the cat’s disposition.

You should be aware that, once you lift the cat, most cats will reflexively reach for the closest limb to grab, so holding the cat in a space where limbs are out of his reach makes it much easier, faster, and safer for you to bag him. If he does manage to grab a limb, you will need to use your other hand to lift that paw free while the scruff hand moves him farther out of reach of the limb.

Depending on your position and the cat’s position, you may need to lift the cat out of his perch before you can begin inverting the bag over him or you may be able to drop the bag partially around him before you begin to lift him. The advantage of the latter process is that it minimizes the time the cat is being held by the scruff. Before you actually take any action, mentally visualize and practice the entire process and look for potential problems and how to prevent or remedy them.

When you are ready to begin, prepare the bag on your arm with your scruff hand through the opening or in the glove in the bottom of the bag. Attach the elastic safety lanyard to your harness. Make sure the bag is not twisted. The bag should cover your lower arm and already be partially inverted, that is, it should be inside-out from your hand to above your wrist and outside-out all around above that. Your free hand should be holding the top edge of the bag and ready to pull the bag over the cat. Make sure you are calm, and when you’re ready, pet the cat to calm and reassure him and massage his scruff to be sure he does not react negatively to it. If you are going to drop the bag around him before you lift him, do that with the free hand and make sure the gathered sides of the bag completely surround him. Return your free hand back to the top edge of the bag and then begin to grab the scruff. Do not grab the scruff quickly and forcefully. Gently massage it and gradually collect it in your hand until you have a firm grip without pressing down forcefully on the cat. As you lift the cat with one hand, the other hand should be pulling the bag down around him. With the bag pre-inverted, it should come down on all sides if the fabric is supple enough, but sometimes you may need to pull the other side down manually. Once the bag is fully inverted, gather it in your free hand or arm as you turn the bag upside-down and hold the neck of the bag closed. You are free to release your grip on the cat and remove your hand from the bag as soon as his weight is being supported by the bag. Normally, the total length of time that you hold the cat's weight by the scruff should be between five and ten seconds, and the quicker, the better.

If you have a lap available, set the cat down on your lap and reassure him and pet him through the bag. Cats sometimes get their claws caught in the fabric, and they may be in a very uncomfortable position and fuss because of it. You will be able to see where the claws are piercing the fabric, so pull the fabric away from them to free their paws, and that usually settles them down. Use your cinch cord around the neck of the bag to secure the cat inside and attach it to your harness for descent. My cinch cord stays attached to my harness and is just long enough that it can reach the bag on my lap and cinch it without having to move the cat off my lap. If the descent is straight and unobstructed, then I may leave the cat on my lap for the descent, but, usually, I hang the cat from my harness. Once I near the ground, I stop to hold the cat up a little higher so that he does not hit the ground before I land.

The scruff bag is a very reliable method of securing a cat, but, for me at least, it is not perfect. For a small number of cases, I have dropped the cat because I had difficulty holding on to him long enough to secure him in the bag. I have encountered a small number of cats whose scruff was so slippery that I could not hold it more than a few seconds. It feels almost as if the scruff has a coating of motor oil on it, and the tighter I squeeze, the more it slips. I don’t know why this happens, and I can’t determine ahead of time if a cat has a slippery scruff or not. I have also had a few cats unexpectedly react by struggling to get out of my grip, and it’s very difficult to hold a cat like that very long. A veterinarian told me long ago that you may be able to prevent or stop the cat from struggling by mimicking a shaking motion by gently moving him side to side a distance of roughly half an inch at a rate of three or four times per second as if you have a small tremor in that hand. I have never tried this and can’t report on its effectiveness. In those rare times when I should try it, I don’t think about it until it’s too late.

The ends of the videos below demonstrate average-case examples of the scruff bag technique.

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