All cats are individuals, coming in different shapes, sizes, colours and personalities. Some cats are super snuggly, climbing onto your lap at every opportunity and constantly twining around your legs looking for affection and to be picked up for a cuddle. Others are more aloof, seeming to prefer their own company and making their displeasure known if you attempt to pick them up.
It is not uncommon for cats to dislike being picked up, even if they’re generally affectionate. There are some aspects of cat behaviour which might help to explain this. And some tips to help if you really need to lift your cat. Let’s go through why your cat may not wish to be picked up and held.
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It goes against normal feline behaviour
Cats (obviously!) don’t greet another cat by picking them up, or even by giving each other a cuddle. They communicate a greeting in much more subtle ways; an upright tail position, a trilling noise, perhaps rubbing their heads against each other. Being picked up is a very unnatural position for a cat, and in the wild would usually indicate a predator grabbing them rather than a friend. So it is a perfectly normal instinctive response if the cat struggles to get away, or freezes.
They weren’t socialised to accept it
In the early weeks of kitten life, there is a period of rapid brain development called the ‘socialisation period’, in which kittens learn from their environment what is safe and good, and what should be avoided. Early experiences can impact future life to a great extent. Those kittens who are poorly socialised are generally more fearful and anxious of novel experiences. If your cat was picked up and cuddled a lot as a kitten, they will be much more accepting of human touch as an older cat; compared to an adult cat who has never been picked up before.
They’re generally anxious
Some cats are naturally more cautious than others; startling easily at loud noises or sudden movements, quick to hide if anything changes or upsets them. Being picked up and held can make some cats nervous, as they are being restrained in your arms. This limits their options for escape if anything were to startle them. Cats are independent creatures, and although they often like to be up high, they like to choose their own perch and not be restrained whilst doing so.
They’re suffering from pain or other medical issues
Cats are masters at hiding pain and discomfort. Often the only symptoms are small changes to their behaviour or everyday routine. If you have a cat who has started hiding away, reacts badly to touch and to being picked up, or even becomes aggressive when stroked, petted or groomed, these may be signs of discomfort or that your cat is feeling unwell. Cats in pain will often actively avoid being touched, and react negatively if you attempt it. This is often more marked in cats who were comfortable with physical affection and then suddenly change to reacting badly to it.
Diseases such as dental problems or arthritis can cause chronic pain, affecting your cat’s behaviour and their response to normal interactions with you. If you are worried that your cat’s response to being picked up is abnormally negative, or if they have changed their interactions with you, seek advice from a vet to rule out any medical problems.
If you have a pedigree cat, some breeds are more known for their affectionate natures than others. Ragdolls are well-known to enjoy being held and cuddled, whereas more aloof breeds such as Persians may not.
Can I get my cat to like being picked up?
Some cats are just not the greatest fans of being picked up, and that is something to be respected. There are lots of other ways to bond with a cat who isn’t keen on cuddles. Try a daily gentle grooming session, invest in some cat toys and have a good playtime, or throw in some tasty treats as well (just not too many!).
If you really want, or need, your cat to become accustomed to being picked up and held, and you have ruled out pain and illness, then the key is to gradually increase their tolerance level. This will take time and patience! Start by sitting near them and gently stroking them along their back and sides, whilst giving plenty of praise and treats. Always make sure this is a positive experience for them, and stop before they have had enough. Once they are comfortable with this, move onto slowly picking them up for a very short amount of time. You can then gradually extend the amount of time you can hold them for. Always remain calm, make your movements slow and predictable and use plenty of treats for positive reinforcement. Keep each session short. If your cat responds negatively at all, stop the session and try again at another time.
It is also important to make sure you are picking up and holding your cat correctly; in a way which is comfortable for them. You should use both hands, making sure not to leave their legs or body unsupported. One hand goes around or under the chest to hold the front end securely against you, and the other hand cups the back end and hindlegs. Try and hold them close against you for safety and so that they feel secure.
Being picked up is not a very natural occurrence for a cat. Imagine being swooped on and carried off by a creature over ten times your size and you might imagine why! Some cats don’t like being held and restrained, may be fearful of overwhelming human contact or have some underlying health problem that causes pain when they are picked up. It is possible to gradually acclimatise your cat to being picked up, but there are also plenty of other ways to form a strong bond with a not-so-cuddly feline, including grooming and playing.