Restraining a domestic cat: passive restraint vs. full-body restraint vs. scruff restraint vs. clipnosis

There are four recognise ways of restraining a domestic cat normally at a veterinary clinic. These are:

(a) Passive restraint;

(b) Full-body restraint;

(c) Scruff restraint and

(d) Clipnosis.

The picture below shows the four types. Type (d) might require a brief explanation as you might not be familiar with the word ‘clipnosis’. It is based on the ‘scruff reflex’ that mother cats rely upon when transporting their kittens from den to den. The kitten automatically goes passive and limp which allows the mother to carry her kitten without interference from her offspring. To replicate that artificially you can place a clip or two at the back of the neck, the place where a mother would gently bite to keep their kitten passive. Adult cats retain the scruff reflex. It is therefore recommended by vets as a way to restrain a cat.

Passive restraint (a)  versus full-body restraint  (b) versus scruff restraint (c) versus clipnosis (d)
Passive restraint (a) versus full-body restraint (b) versus scruff restraint (c) versus clipnosis (d)
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

One of these 4 methods is the best in terms of being the least stressful for the cat – I am not comparing effectiveness or usefulness. And that method, which may surprise people, is method (a). This may be disputed by some veterinarians and expert cat behaviourists because my research indicates that both often recommend clipnosis. Dr. John Bradshaw in his book Cat Sense says that veterinary nurses sometimes use clipnosis (“applying a line of several clothes pegs to the area of the skin between the top of the head and shoulders”). And he says that the technique allows nurses to “complete examination of the cat without causing too much stress”. Although he does not state that it is superior to passive restraint.

And, Emily Caldwell, writing on behalf of The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine states that, “Using clips to gently squeeze the skin at the back of a cat’s neck before minor veterinary procedures or even a nail-trimming at home is an effective and pain-free way to humanely hold cats that might otherwise put up a fuss, according to a study conducted in the College of Veterinary Medicine.”

A study reported on the Vet Record website entitled: Getting a grip: cats respond negatively to scruffing and clips, examined these four methods and concluded that full-body restraint and clip restraint (clipnosis) “resulted in the greatest number of negative responses”. Scruffing resulted in fewer negative responses while “passive restraint showed the least number of responses”. The study was conducted by: Carly M Moody, Georgia J Mason, Cate E Dewey and Lee Niel.

They therefore recommend against using full-body restraint and clipnosis while suggesting that the scruff restraint should be avoided if possible. They found that there was no difference in terms of negative response between a full body restraint which is known to be “aversive” and the clip restraint. They clearly concluded that clipnosis was not as good as people might think it is. And although in the abstract they don’t state that passive restraint is the best, by implication they are saying that it is, as it resulted in the least number of negative responses.

The blog of Dr. Mikel Maria Delgado, the person who collaborated with Jackson Galaxy in writing his book Total Cat Mojo, reports on the above-mentioned study in her article: Getting a handle on cats: What types of restraint lead to stress?

She tells us that 52 shelter cats were tested. The passive restraint method was the control method. The cats were tested for being avoidant or non-avoidant to people i.e. unfriendly or friendly.

She mentions that the researchers checked for stress by measuring ear movement, respiration rate, pupil dilation, vocalisations and lip-licking. She reports, as I have above, that full body restraint and clipnosis were the most stressful. Scruffing appears to be less stressful than those two methods but more stressful than passive restraint.

She mentions that it is possible to combine these techniques and suggests a future study in which for example scruffing and restraining the body were combined to check the response.

She also mentioned that when she worked in a shelter many years ago that scruffing was the norm to restrain cats. She said that she would try something different today based on the knowledge that she has acquired over the years.

It seems that scruff-restraint is still taught to veterinary students.

Caveat: It seems to me that you can do certain veterinary procedures with e.g. clipnosis that you can’t do with passive-restraint. The point I am making is that passive restraint may be the least stressful but is it the most efficient and effective?

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