Picking up a cat can be a tricky business. Some cats you’ll hold and be snuggling in no time. Other times, you’ll find yourself holding onto FURRY FURY! with claws. Next thing you know, you’ve got holes in your shirt and your arms, stumbling around looking for band-aids instead of happily cuddling a kitty.
Don’t need band-aids. Follow our claws-free guide to knowing how and when to pick up a cat below!
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(Look, some cats are really uncool with pick-up artists, okay? We can’t GUARANTEE no claws, but we’ll make sure you know the warning signs before getting cut.)
IS IT YOUR CAT?
If the answer is no, DON’T try to pick them up – at least until you’ve spoken with the owner about whether it’s okay to do so, and how the cat likes to be held. Even then, we recommend building a relationship with any feline friend before trying to hold them.
If the answer is yes, keep reading. Ditto if it’s not your cat, but you have a legitimate need to pick them up.
IS IT A STRAY CAT?
If the answer is yes, DON’T PICK THEM UP. You have no idea what kind of stress Mr. Street Cat is under, what kind of anxieties they have, or whether they even enjoy being held. If it’s a stray you see regularly, you can try to build a rapport with them – but be careful and move slowly to gain Mr. Street Cat’s trust.
If you need to get a stray cat off the street, it’s generally best to do so by humane and gentle trapping – like tricking them into a cat carrier with food (either over several days or in one door-slamming flash) or employing the swaddling method farther along in this article. Just be sure you’re quicker than the cat!
HOW TO PICK UP A CAT
First things first: listen to your cat. Use your eyes and your ears – they’ll let you know if scooping them up is okay. They should be relaxed and feel secure. They may even ask to be picked up, meowing or trilling or stretching toward you – my brother’s cat Nyx will run right up and stand on his hind legs, front paws waving in the air like a toddler asking for a hug. They won’t pull away or struggle if they want to be held when you approach them.
Once you’re sure they’re okay for lift off, you’re ready to attempt one of the methods below. Once you’ve lifted the cat, let them guide you in how they want to be held:
Put one hand behind their front legs and cradle their chest, so you can support the front of the cat’s body. Use the other hand in a similar position just in front of their back legs. Keep their body even and head up as you lift, and pull them up against your chest.
Alternatively, you can support their front end as above, but use your other hand to scoop up and support their hind legs together. (Almost as if they were sitting on your other hand like a branch.)
Over the Shoulder
Some will want to hook their front legs on your shoulder, with their butts parked on your arm.
Still others will want their rears snuggled into one bent elbow while your other arm pets them and supports their upper body.
Very few cats will even let you cradle them like a baby, but only try this if you know for sure – they’ll generally do it from kittenhood.
Pro tip: Don’t hold them too tightly, so they know they’re in a secure position and in control. If they relax against you – and maybe even purr! – you have succeeded. You’re a cat-cuddling champ!
HOW TO PUT A CAT DOWN
Of course, just because your puddy-tat pal let you pick them up doesn’t mean they want to stay that way. No, cats can change their minds in a flash and they expect you to get the message even faster. Make sure you stay tuned in to your kitty’s body language when they’re in your arms: if they struggle, lash their tails, push away with their paws, growl, or even bring out the claws – let them get down immediately. But carefully!
NEVER throw a cat – that whole bit about them always landing on their feet isn’t an actual law of physics or anything. While firmly supporting their body, lower your cat to the floor, or let them climb out of your arms onto a nearby table, platform, steady chair back, whatever. If they want to jump out of your arms, let them – but only if it’s a controlled jump. If they’re flailing, keep that firm but gentle grip until they’re on a solid surface. Then let them go.
HOW TO PICK UP AN UNHAPPY CAT
So you can’t wait for them to be in a carrying mood – you need to pick up your cat NOW, either because there’s an appointment or an emergency. Here’s a trick to make sure you don’t end up cut to ribbons for not following the rules:
Get a blanket or a towel large enough to wrap around your cat a couple of times.
Drape the towel or blanket over your cat, carefully pushing them onto their side or scooping them up.
Hold or support your cat firmly, but not tightly, as you securely turn them into a kitty burrito.
If you have more time to work on swaddling your cat, Vetstreet has a great tutorial. (This can also work if you need help getting them to take medication or even trimming their claws.)
Just remember: listen to your cat. Don’t try to pick up a cat you don’t know. NEVER lift an adult cat by the scruff of their necks or by ANY of their limbs. Respect your cat’s wishes, take what they give you – even if that means never giving kitty an airplane ride – and you’ll be fine.
You won’t need band-aids, anyway.