Lily just got a book from my parents that shows a mother cat carrying her kitten by the scruff of the neck, as mother cats will do. Lily asked Jane what the mother cat was doing, so Jane explained how some animals carry around their young. She also explained that the scruff was an area on top of some animals, behind the head, that contained loose skin that could be grabbed without hurting the animal.
This was timely information for Lily, because of late she has been prone to excessively wrangling our cat Buster around by the head and neck. Buster is a good cat, so he endures this. He also has no claws (not my doing, he was that way when I got him), so he doesn’t have much choice other than running away. And since Buster is not only good, but good and fat (about 18 pounds), “Running” is apparently lower on his list of things to do than “Be Manhandled By Over-appreciative Child”. But now that Lily knows about the scruff, perhaps Buster’s days of suffering are at an end.
When Jane related this story to me last night I happened to be sitting next to Buster, and I became intrigued: Can the scruff of an 18 pound cat be used in the same fashion as that of a six-ounce kitten? I reached over, grabbed Buster’s scruff, and gingerly hoisted him up into the air. To my surprise, he did not offer his normal wail of despair when unduly molested. Instead he just hung there from my hand, confused and possibly annoyed but apparently without distress.
I set him down. Then I picked him up again. And again. At no point did he protest. In fact, when I set him down the third time, he reached up with his paw and began lightly brushing my cheek. “Aw”, said Jane. “Now he thinks you’re his mama.” Was this true? Had I perhaps unleashed some deep instinctual reaction within him by handling him as his mother might have handled him when he was a kitten? And if so, was this a good thing for Buster or a bad thing?
I became concerned about managing his expectations. I wasn’t his mama, no matter what I did with his scruff. I wasn’t going to be picking him up and putting him into a shoebox lined with a nasty old towel, if that’s what he had in mind. I told him this, but he continued to softly stroke my cheek anyway.
Then I became bored with Buster and looked instead to our dog Maxine. It’s less clear to me how effective dog scruff is. I know you can give them shots in the scruff and they won’t feel it, but could you actually pick up a dog by the scruff and carry it around without hurting it? Unfortunately I cannot know this with my own dog, because she weighs about 80 pounds. It would take a strong person indeed to pick up a dog of her size with one hand by the scruff of the neck, but I would be delighted to see that happen, provided it didn’t hurt her.
Neck scruffs would be convenient on small children, but instead they just have necks, which are no good at all for carrying or hoisting purposes except in the most unusual circumstances. Darwin, of course, posited that children at one time did have functional neck scruffs, but then strollers were invented and child scruff was tossed onto the junkpile of evolution.