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Scratching Behavior in Cats

Scratching is a natural behavior of cats and it is important for cat owners to recognize this concept. Cats scratch for a variety of reasons: to shed old cuticle, to "mark their territory" by leaving scent marks (there are scent glands on the digital paw pads), and to stretch and exercise their muscles. Even declawed cats will "go through the motions" of scratching because the instinct to scratch is still present.

Although scratching is a natural behavior for cats, this behavior is a source of frustration for many cat owners whose furniture has shreds of fabric hanging from it, whose stereo speakers may be shredded, and whose cabinets don a few or more claw marks. For others, who may have recently adopted a new cat, or are contemplating doing so, the thought of having to deal with destroyed belongings in the future from cat claws is enough to make them want to have the cats' claws immediately removed.

At Cat Hospital of Chicago, we are strongly opposed to declawing as a solution to addressing normal feline behavior. Fortunately, although more effort may be required in working with some cats, the scratching behavior can usually be directed to objects that are owner-approved. It is important to provide scratching objects that are desirable for your cat, as well as acceptable to you, the owner. The type of scratching surface that a cat prefers can vary between individual cats. Thus, an owner may need to try a variety of different surfaces, and a variety of different locations in the home, in order to determine which one(s) the cat(s) seems to favor and utilize the most.

Scratching Objects (see below for some suggestions)

  1. Vertical or horizontal scratching posts. If your cat historically has enjoyed scratching the carpet, then a horizontal carpeted scratching post (with carpet similar to what he or she has been "inappropriately" scratching) would be a good selection. If your cat historically has enjoyed scratching the corners of your sofa about one to two feet off the ground, then he or she probably would prefer a vertical scratching post - and again, with a surface similar to that of your sofa. As a general rule most, but not all, cats prefer scratching posts that are made out of rough material (such as sisal or corrugated cardboard) that they can shred. If your cat is attracted to chair legs, or to your cabinetry, however, he or she may prefer a wood scratching post. Be sure that the scratching post, no matter what type of surface, and whether horizontal or vertical, is sturdy (or stabilized if not), so that your cat can firmly scratch without the post moving or tipping over (a sure way to discourage your cat from using it again!). It is also important to assure that vertical scratching posts are tall enough so that your cat can stretch up to scratch them.
  2. A sturdy log or piece of driftwood/tree bark- especially for those cats who prefer to scratch wood.
  3. Sturdy cat tree whose side supports are primarily tree bark- These types of cat trees can be difficult to find any more, and the ones that are well made can be quite expensive. Inexpensive multi-level cat trees could also be homemade rather easily, for those who are handy (sturdy ladder, staple carpet around the steps, wrap sisal or carpet around the supports - stabilize well).
  4. For those who live in lofts or other homes with beams that extend from floor to ceiling - consider wrapping the base of the beam with sisal, carpet, or other preferred scratching surface. (You could even wrap the beam up higher with the material, to allow the cat another surface to climb and get exercise at the same time).
  5. Cat tree with a variety of scratching materials - These are ideal, because it gives the cat(s) many options, as well as providing both exercise for the cat and "vertical territory" (important to cats - cats love to be up high where they can oversee all that is going on).

We strongly recommend that, especially in multi-cat households, several scratching posts with a variety of different types of surfaces be available. Even in a single cat household, your cat may not be attracted to the first post that you purchase. You may need to provide "options" for your cat in order to determine which type of post (horizontal or vertical), which type of surface, and which location is best for your cat.

Scratching posts, as a general rule, should be placed near areas where the cat(s) like to congregate or sleep (so they can stretch and scratch upon awakening). Additionally, cats use scratching as a way to communicate as they pass through areas, so placing scratching posts at room entrances, on the way to the feeding area or litter box area, etc. are all good ideas. Bedrooms and living areas where human family members tend to spend more time are often ideal locations for scratching surfaces, as are entryways (cats will often scratch as soon as their human family enters the home).

Some cats will readily use a scratching post as soon as it is placed in a preferred location. For others, teaching a cat to utilize the scratching post can be a challenge. This is certainly a much easier task if the cat is "taught" to do so at a young age. We recommend to owners, as noted above, that the cat(s) be given multiple options with strategically placed scratching posts. Be observant as to which post the cat(s) seems to prefer. Your cat can be encouraged to use the post(s) by applying catnip to its surface, taking a toy on a string and running it up and down the scratching post, by shining a laser light across or up and down over a scratch post (never in the cat's eyes!), or by attaching toys to the post, which will result in her digging his or her claws into the post. Any of these may stimulate the cat to want to play on or around the scratching post. Make sure that all associations with the post are pleasurable ones for the cat. It is also important for owners to continue to encourage this behavior throughout the entire training process. Continued encouragement (verbal 'good kitty,' petting or grooming, etc.) even after the cat will readily use the scratch post on his or her own is recommended as well. Pour on the praise!

If your cat still does not want to use the scratching post and/or is scratching other "less acceptable" objects, consider:
a) moving the scratching post next to the object that the cat is scratching "inappropriately," even if temporarily;

b) covering the object that is being scratched so that the object is either inaccessible or objectionable for your cat. Examples include:

  1. a product called Sticky Paws for Furniture, which are wide double-sided adhesive strips that can be applied to carpets, counter tops, drapes, furniture, stereo speakers, table legs, or any other place where you don't want your cat to scratch; won't harm your cat or furniture, and they're basically invisible on your furniture; available at Cat Hospital of Chicago, pet stores, or at www.stickypaws.com
  2. another option is a product called Sofa Savers, which is clear plastic that attaches to the corners of your sofa; or, alternatively, applying a plastic runner, knobby side up, to the sides of the sofa
  3. wrapping upholstered or wooden chair legs with bubble wrap, or applying Sticky Paws for Furniture to the chair legs, may also be helpful
  4. placing a citrus scented room freshener (which most cats find objectionable) near the object that they are "inappropriately scratching" (as long as the "appropriate" scratching post isn't too close by!).
  5. for vertical surfaces, spray object with Feliway (a pheromone that can deter a kitty) every few days until your kitty is no longer interested in that object

In any event, we strongly discourage any physical punishment of "inappropriate scratching" ! Unfortunately, the result of physical punishment is often that the cat learns to perform the behavior when the owner is not around. Physical punishment is not a kind training method, nor is it effective in cats. A firm "no" is appropriate if you catch your cat in the act of scratching an unacceptable object, but it is important that you follow through with the above-mentioned more effective ways at discouraging this behavior and directing it towards more appropriate surfaces, as well as providing those acceptable surfaces, and aggressively encouraging the cat to use them.

For those owners who are contemplating replacing old shredded furniture and are concerned about the newer furniture being destroyed (as Dr. Currigan once was), she can certainly share her own story. "I was the owner of a 3-legged cat (3-legged since kitten hood due to trauma prior to showing up at a shelter), who did an absolutely award-winning job of destroying an old sofa and one chair. I had provided scratching posts for her, which she utilized, but she seemed to prefer the sofa. Because the sofa was old, I wasn't too adamant in discouraging her from ruining the sofa (big mistake - don't assume you'll always be content with that shabby old sofa). So far this probably sounds familiar to many people - I hear this story all the time. When it came time to replace the sofa, my cat was then 6 years old, and her "inappropriate" behavior (inappropriate to me, but very appropriate to her) was well ingrained. Therefore, in my adult, loved-to-scratch-the-sofa cat, I put tremendous effort into redirecting her behavior so that it was acceptable to both of us. First, I applied Sticky Paws to the old sofa and chair - and left these on for a couple of months while I worked with her to "re-train" her to use her scratching posts exclusively. I also placed a few citrus-scented air fresheners (objectionable to most cats) near/on my sofa and chair to discourage her from wanting to be in that area. I played with my cat around the scratching posts daily (our play was almost exclusively directed at the scratching post), I offered her some "newer" options, and I rewarded her daily (lots of attention) when she used her post. A few months after my efforts began, my new sofa and chair arrived. I applied Sticky Paws to the new furniture, and continued to encourage use of the scratching surfaces that I wanted her to use (and that she was using quite well at this point). And I encouraged her, (and my other two cats), daily in using their posts. My 3-legged cat never once used the newer sofa as a scratching surface. With effort, I was able to re-train her, and the effort was worth it - it worked, and it was my only option" .

Although many owners find it difficult to do, nail trims can usually be performed at home. Keeping the nails trimmed may reduce some of the damage from scratching. It may take time to get your cat used to having his or her nails trimmed, and you may be able to do only a "paw at a time" . Remember when trimming the nails, it is best to remove the tip only, or just beyond it, to assure that you don't cause bleeding or pain to the cat by cutting into the "quick" (the pink area, which is where the blood supply and the nerves are located). Be sure to praise your cat after a nail trim, pet her, or reward her in other ways after a nail trim! They're much more likely to accept it being done if it always associated with the pleasantry of praise, petting, or a treat!

Although we haven't found too many owners that have found a long-term solution with nail caps (such as Soft Paws), this is an acceptable option for those owners who are wanting to try it, and whose cats will allow their application. They should be re-applied every 4-6 weeks.

Scratching Object Suggestions
While we do not endorse any products, the cats of some of our staff and clients have enjoyed a variety of objects, including those listed below.

Scratching Posts

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