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The Right Way to Pick Up a Cat: A Step-By-Step Guide

Woman holding cat
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One of the things that all cat parents should master is how to properly pick up a cat. The concept may sound simple, but it involves an understanding of how to properly introduce yourself to cats, read cat body language, and use techniques for both lifting and placing cats back down. 

Read below to know this process well enough to successfully pick up almost any cat you come in contact with.

Picking Up a Cat: Why Technique Matters

Woman holding a cat, cat is relaxed

Learning the appropriate way to pick up a cat—starting with the correct approach—is very important. Cats that experience stress may desperately attempt to get away if picked up awkwardly, resulting in a high level of fear and possible injury to the cat. 

Cats have some level of memory—while they will not remember dates, times, and exact details, a stressful event like being picked up wrong could leave a lasting impression against interacting with a particular person. 

Cats may even scratch or bite out of fear, so keeping yourself safe is another important reason to learn how to properly pick up a cat.

How to Approach a Cat

Cat sniffing hand

Every cat appreciates a proper introduction. First, approach the cat only if she is relaxed and when she is not asleep—it can be startling to be woken up. 

You can tell a cat is relaxed when:

  • Her eyes are not open wide, and her pupils (the black center of the eye) are not super big or dilated
  • Her body is in a relaxed position. For example, she is sitting or laying down calmly with minimal movement
  • Her tail is still (not twitching)
  • Her ears are facing forward
  • Her fur is not on end, and the tail is not puffed up
  • She is not growling or vocalizing loudly

If the cat you wish to pick up appears relaxed, approach the cat calmly and quietly. Speak in a normal voice—one that is not raised. You also shouldn’t approach with laughter or strange noises. Walk up steadily—don’t run or perform other quick movements.

The next step is to allow the cat the opportunity to sniff you. Hold out your hand fairly slowly and place it a couple inches from the cat’s face. Many times, cats will sniff your hand and choose what to do next. 

If you notice that she leans away from your hand, adjusts her body so she is now facing away or flinches, do not approach. The cat is trying to tell you she is NOT interested in any interaction whatsoever. If the cat does not sniff your hand and just stares, you should also not approach—cats that choose this are usually very tense and more apt to swat at you.

If the cat sniffs you and continues to appear relaxed, greet her appropriately by gently petting her a couple times on the top of the head and/or the cheek. Do not pet anywhere lower than the top of the head. Stop after a couple of pets and reassess her body language. Did her tail start to twitch? Did she open her eyes wide to stare at you? Did she sit up from laying down? If the signs of relaxation change, the cat does not wish for you to continue. However, if the cat appears relaxed still—and maybe even begins to purr—she is likely to accept more pets.

After several more pets on the head and face, run your hand gently and smoothly, once, from head to tail. If the cat’s relaxation changes—especially if she turns her head suddenly to stare at your hand, swats, opens her eyes wide, or tail or body twitches—she is unlikely to allow you to pick her up. If the cat appears unfazed, you might be able to pick her up!

How to Pick Up a Cat

Man holding cat securely

Picking up a cat appropriately is more challenging than people realize. Read these steps to ensure the cat is comfortable and safe in your arms. 

Remember that with each step you should remain calm and quiet. Move smoothly and a little slower than you might normally.

 Step 1: Placement of your hands and arms. Place one hand and part of your arm under the cat’s front legs and the other underneath her back legs. She needs to feel supported under her rear end especially.

Step 2: Lift the cat. Once you lift her up, immediately bring her close to your body, against your chest or stomach. Do so as soon as possible during lifting, even before you have fully stood up.

Step 3: Hold the cat securely. Many times people will move to wrapping their arms around the cat. This is fine, as long as you continue to hold the cat against you, and her rear end is always supported. Some shy cats may choose to hide their face in the crook of your arm; allow them to do this.

Step 4: Continue monitoring body language throughout carrying the cat. While she may have enjoyed it initially, when a cat becomes tired of being held she will give cues such as tail twitching or thrashing, growling, tensing the body, squirming in your arms or stopping purring. If any of these things occur, put the cat down right away in a safe way (see the next step).

Step 5: Put down the cat in a quiet area away from activity. Even though cats can jump from high places, it is safer and more polite to assist the cat in meeting the height to which she is to jump. For example, if you want to set her on the ground, kneel down so she can jump from a lesser height. If you wish to set her on a surface, bring her close to the surface both in height and proximity. This is particularly important to avoid getting scratched by her back claws as is common for cats when they leap out of your arms.

How to Pick Up a Kitten

Kitten being held

Kittens should be given the same process as is outlined above for all cats. Even though most kittens are outgoing and have less fear, ensuring they have a positive experience with being picked up is critical. Kittens form life-long assumptions and associations with experiences at a young age.

Kittens are more tricky to hold once they are picked up. If the kitten is small enough that you can use just your hands (not your arms) to lift them under their front and rear legs, this is appropriate and may offer better control. 

Kittens tend to squirm when in your arms for long periods of time, as they are very active. If a kitten becomes difficult to hold onto, immediately lower them safely toward a place to set them down. This is important to avoid frustrating the kitten, to avoid getting scratched, and to ensure you do not accidentally drop the kitten.

Mistakes to Avoid When Picking Up a Cat

Person holding a cat outside

The most common mistake made when people pick up a cat is that she gave clear signs she did not wish to be picked up. Watching body language each step of the way is key. 

Other common mistakes include:

  • Picking up a cat before finishing the introduction process (i.e. allowing the cat to sniff then immediately picking them up)
  • Picking up a cat by the scruff, or the skin on the back of the neck and shoulders
  • Not holding a cat close to your body so she feels insecure
  • Holding onto a cat too long
  • Allowing a cat to jump out of your arms from a distance or considerable height
  • Allowing children to carry a cat for long periods, incorrectly or unsupervised

Why Doesn’t My Cat Like to Be Held?

Unhappy cat eating a treat

Not every cat likes being held. In fact, some pet parents are never able to hold their cat! 

It is natural for some cats to dislike being held and there may be no explanation. For other cats, this dislike could be because of a traumatic event in the past, or repeated negative interactions while being held. It could also be true that as a kitten this cat was not held often and has no experience with being held. Some cats do not like their stomachs touched for any reason and being picked up requires the stomach area to be touched. 

Some of these cats can be slowly conditioned (in a sense trained) to enjoy being held. Keep in mind that no matter what you do, never scold your cat during this process, as it will make matters worse. 

Follow these steps carefully and slowly. If at ANY time your cat bites or attempts to bite, howls, urinates or defecates on you or runs and hides for a considerable period of time afterward stop making these attempts. Some cats may never enjoy being held and you shouldn’t force it.

 Step 1: Find a favorite treat or toy. If there is a small piece of something to eat that is highly enjoyed such as tuna (cooked) or a particular pet store treat, use this. Some cats are not very fond of treats but are very interested in play – have a favorite toy on hand during conditioning. If using a toy as incentive, you must play with your cat for at least a couple minutes as her reward.

Step 2: Ensure a quiet environment. Only perform conditioning when there is limited to no other human or animal activity, in familiar environments (i.e. at home) and when things are generally quiet.

Step 3: Take time for introductions. Always start with a proper introduction, and if your cat’s response is that she does not want attention, do not force it.

Step 4: Lift and reward. Gently place your hands under the rear legs and behind the front legs, lift about 1 inch from the ground and immediately return her to her original spot. Immediately follow (within a couple seconds) with the treat or toy.

Step 5: Repeat. After this has been done several times, and you do not notice any signs of stress (i.e. biting, scratching, growling, hiding), try lifting several inches off the ground. Repeat the same steps as above and do this several times over.

Step 6: Hold your cat against your body. Once your cat seems comfortable with being lifted off the ground and rewarded, the next step is to pick up your cat and hold her against your body for a second. Do this and then return her to the ground safely to immediately receive her treat or toy. Do this numerous times, and do not move on until there are no signs of stress.

Step 7: Try a hold lasting a few seconds. The final step is to pick up your cat and hold her a few seconds, talking softly and petting her. Continue to repeat this process until she is held for longer and longer periods of time.

It is VERY important that if at any time during this process your cat shows signs of wanting to get down—such as squirming or growling—you must immediately put her down. Forcing your cat to stay in your arms may ruin the work you have done to condition her to tolerate or (hopefully) enjoy being picked up.