If you’re a new cat owner and you’re not quite sure if and how your cat likes to be held, we’ve got the answers you’re looking for. These tips can help you learn how to hold a cat the right way without causing injury or stress.

By Sierra Burgos
August 24, 2020
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For anyone who isn’t a self-proclaimed cat-whisperer, approaching and picking up a cat can be intimidating. Here are a few tips and tricks to help you learn how to hold a cat, even if he’s a finicky feline.

Do Cats Like to Be Held?

There’s no exact right answer to this question. Every cat is different—some will crave human touch, while others would rather hide away under beds or behind couches. Generally speaking, cats can be pretty indifferent when it comes to human interaction. To decide if they’re ready to be held, you’ll have to learn how to read cat body language.

Samantha Nigbur, Behavioral Sciences Team Counselor at the ASPCA, says that just like with petting a cat, you should begin by assessing the situation. Look at the cat’s body language and behavior. Is his tail sticking straight up in the air, gently swaying back and forth? Are his ears perky and pointed upwards? Does he seem relaxed and unafraid to approach you? These are all signs he’s at ease and won’t fight you if you attempt to hold him. Especially if he’s coming up to you and rubbing against you, he’s giving you the green light to continue.

On the other hand, if the cat is showing a more cautious demeanor—like his tail is wagging erratically, ears flattened, or generally acting skittish—now is probably not the best time to try picking him up. Cats will let us know when they prefer to be left alone, and we need to be perceptive to how they’re feeling. 

“Just as with petting,” Nigbur says, “if you notice subtle signs such as a tense body, dilated pupils, round eye-shape, tail flicking, or ears back, put your cat down.”

How Should You Pick Up a Cat?

After assessing the situation and getting the green light, approach the kitty with a relaxed manner. Crouch down to his level—he’ll feel less threatened when you’re not towering over him. You can even gain his trust by petting him in his hot spots, like the base of the ears or under the chin.

“If your cat is nervous of being picked up, but enjoys your company and petting, you can try to teach them to enjoy or tolerate being picked up,” Nigbur says. “[Motivate] her with a lick of baby food or a flake of tuna after every [step]. This will keep her happy about being touched. If your cat is not food motivated, you can also offer a few seconds of playtime with their favorite toy as a reward.”

Place your dominant hand underneath her ribcage (not their stomach). Use your free arm to support the back legs. When you feel comfortable, Nigbur says to slowly lift to a standing position while also pulling the cat against your chest for support. Use that non-dominant arm as a platform to support her hind legs.

Once she’s up in your arms, be sure to remain calm so the kitty feels comfortable. Hold the cat so her back paws are supported—lay your non-dominant arm flat across your torso, above the belly button, to give her a shelf to rest her rump on. Use your dominant hand to support her upper half and hold her firmly yet gently against your chest.

Once you're both comfortable, explore different ways of holding him to see what he enjoys. Some cats like to perch their legs on your arm and look back over your shoulder so they can enjoy the view. Others like to be held on their backs like a human baby. Nigbur says as you explore, pet him and talk to him to make him feel more comfortable and secure. Support him with your non-dominant arm and pet him on his head or down his back with your free hand. Maintaining a soft tone will put him at ease.

For younger children or anyone who’s less experienced with cats, Nigbur says to try holding him from a sitting position first, which will allow the cat to be in control and find a comfortable position on your lap. This is also the way you’ll want to hold a cat to prepare him for nail clipping, so it’s good practice to have him sit on laps.

How Should You Put a Cat Down? (Hint: Gently!)

When you or the cat decide you’ve had enough holding time, place him down gently. Instruct children to let him go immediately if he begins to struggle. Children have a tendency to hold on tighter, but this could result in a scratch. From standing, crouch back down to ground level and place your cat’s paws as close to the floor as possible. When they realize what's happening, they’ll step out of your arms on their own. And even if you don’t crouch in time, don’t worry—cats (almost) always land on their feet.