How to Keep Your Cat from Destructive Scratching

We’ve got a bunch of scratchers for my cats. Most of them came from Target and are cardboard. They love their scratchers and very rarely scratch furniture now. — Mads Kasparek

I’ve always provided scratching posts and climbing trees, so I’ve rarely had problems with my kitties. Now and then they have scratched furniture and I simply clapped my hands and commanded “NO!” They’ve listened and obeyed. —Gayle Irwin

My cats would scratch the door frames, chairs or couches, and the only thing I found that worked was clear packing tape. I taped on the areas that they chose to abuse in long strips and then they stopped because they didn’t like the feel of it. —Debbie Winkler

Ariel never started scratching furniture, because I filled the apartment with big scratching posts and trees before I adopted her. I also used Sticky Paws on a new couch. —Sarah Chauncey

I have a number of scratching posts for my cats. However, the biggest ‘solution’ I embraced is to not care about the furniture. Fur families are far more important. —Sherri Telenko

Scratching is a natural and necessary cat behavior, yet according to the American Veterinarian Medical Association destructive scratching represents approximately 15 to 42% of cat behavior complaints. One way that cat owners sometimes choose to deal with scratching is to have their cat declawed. According to the AVMA, other ways are relinquishment and euthanasia. There are much better solutions!

REASONS

Cats scratch for many reasons. It improves a cat’s health, feels good to a cat, relieves stress, and marks a cat’s territory.

Scratching is healthy. “Cat nails grow in layers,” Dr. Hiebner of Pitts Veterinarian Hospital explained, “and scratching will remove the older outside layers, allowing the newer, and sharper growth to come through.” She added, “Keeping the nails healthy allows the cat to grip their prey, climb or get a grip when running away.”

Scratching feels good. In addition to conditioning the claws, cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett says that scratching stretches a cat’s back and shoulder muscles. “Imagine how good it must feel,” Bennet writes on her website, “to be able to fully unkink those muscles after sleeping in a tight little ball.”

Scratching serves as an emotional release. When cats are anxious or frustrated, or even when they’re happy or excited, they can release some of their built-up emotions by scratching. Cats will scratch in reaction to being yelled at by their owners, or in reaction to seeing an unwelcome animal in their yard. They’ll also scratch in response to visitors or mealtime.

Scratching is how cats mark their territory. When cats scratch, an olfactory mark is created via the scent glands in their paw pads. These olfactory markers provide information from one cat to another. Scratch marks also serve as a warning sign to approaching cats that they’re entering an area where another cat has been or is currently residing. These warning signs can reduce the number of potentially risky confrontations between cats. Cat blogger Emelia Evans writes at her blog Life and Cats that owners will notice that their cats are most likely scratching the furniture they use the most. She explains that cats do this to mark areas with their scent glands and to make the house their home.

SCRATCHING POSTS

If scratching is a natural and necessary cat behavior, how can owners provide cats with an outlet while protecting their home? “Because it’s instinctual, you can’t really train cats not to scratch,” advised Dr. Walton of Pet Care Center, “but you can redirect them to scratch on appropriate objects.”

The most recognized alternative is a scratching post. “Research shows that if a scratching post is available, cats will use it,” wrote Zazie Todd on her blog Companion Animal Psychology. In summary of the results of a study that appeared in the Journal of Feline Medicine, Todd wrote that out of 4,105 cat owners, 89% said that their cats used a scratching post at least once a day.

Scratching posts come in different orientations, textures, and sizes, and they can be placed in a variety of locations. All of these variables may impact whether they are used or ignored.

Orientation: “Most cats like to scratch vertically on a sturdy post that is taller than their body length to fully stretch and give a good scratch,” said Dr. Kerl of Ehlers Animal Care. But Dr. Kerl noted that “if your cat is scratching your carpet, try a horizontal scratcher.” There are other types of scratchers on the market such as scratchers that hang from the wall, toys with scratchers built into them, and scratchers that are part of a cat tree.

Experts say that more is better when it comes to scratching options. It’s also a good idea to have a number of different types on hands to account for cats’ different preferences. However, Todd said simple vertical posts and multi-level cat trees are equally popular with cats and effective at reducing inappropriate scratching. Whereas, Todd said, “Scratching posts that hang from or are affixed to the wall were associated with high levels of inappropriate scratching, suggesting that many cats do not like this kind of post.”

Although the cost and size of cat trees may make them prohibitive to some cat owners, they’re worth mentioning here as research shows that cats enjoy them. Todd reported that cat trees with one or more levels were associated with low levels of problem scratching. She noted however that it depended on age. Cats nine years or younger preferred a cat tree, but older cats wanted a simple scratching post.

Texture: Many cats have texture preferences for scratching areas. Sisal is the most common, while some cats prefer corrugated cardboard, carpet, cloth, or wood. According to cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett, the rough texture of sisal “makes it easy for cats to dig their claws in and get an effective scratch.” In contrast, she says, “Carpet-covered posts are too soft and don’t meet the needs of most cats … Additionally, many cats end up getting their claws caught in the carpet loops.” Cat blogger Emelia Evans advises, “If your cat isn’t scratching furniture but is instead working out on the doorways, consider a scratch post of plain wood.”

Size: Scratching posts come in different sizes, some being shorter than cats standing upright and others being taller. Todd reported, “Cats were less likely to scratch inappropriately if they had a tall post that was more than 3 foot high. This is useful to know because many posts for sale in pet stores are shorter than this and do not allow the cat to fully stretch out.”

Location: A good rule of thumb is to provide a wide variety of scratching posts in a wide variety of locations. The Humane Society of the United States suggests that cat owners put posts where their cats want them such as next to their favorite eating and sleeping spots so cats “don’t have to go far to indulge themselves.”

OTHER STRATEGIES

What are other ways to minimize damage to your home from cat scratching? Six more strategies you can try are: trim your cat’s claws, use reinforcers and deterrents, remove threats, alleviate stressors, and apply claw caps.

Trim cat claws: Make trimming your cat’s claws a normal part of your cat’s grooming routine in the same way nail trimming is part of your own grooming routine. Especially when you start with a kitten, the task doesn’t have to be an ordeal. For a how-to guide, check out my article: Trimming a Cat’s Claws

HSUS notes a second benefit: “Cats who are sedentary may not wear down their claws through exercise and their nails can become overgrown. Left untrimmed, claws can grow into your cat’s paw pads, which can lead to infection, pain, and difficulty walking or using the litter box.”

Reinforcers: According to the results of a study that Todd summarized, people who rewarded their cat for using the scratching post were significantly less likely to have a problem with inappropriate scratching. Rewards used in the study included food/treats, petting, and praise.

Whenever you cat scratches anywhere that’s inappropriate, according to HSUS, the first step is to place a scratcher near where your cat prefers to scratch. Then train your cat to use the scratching post instead. Do this by watching your cat and whenever he scratches anywhere other than the scratching post, gently pick up your cat and take him to the scratching post, and provide a reward the instant he uses it. If needed, you can try a scratcher attractant spray  or sprinkle a liberal dose of catnip on the desired scratcher. HSUS says that once your cat reliably uses a scratching post, “you can slowly move it to a nearby location by moving it 4-5 inches a day.”

Deterrents: There are numerous deterrents a cat owner can try, and you’ll simply have to figure out through experimentation which one works on your cat. The majority of them require you to make the scratching surface unappealing. You can also distract or redirect.

Any number of items can be used to make a scratching surface unappealing, such as two-sided sticky tape, tinfoil, plastic, rubber mats, or furniture covers. Please use caution as some of these, such as tinfoil and plastic, could be hazardous to your cat if swallowed. Alternatively, you could use a spray that covers up a cat’s scent, such as citrus. Another option is to simply block the surface by placing a blanket over furniture or a heavy object in front of a doorway or windowsill. Whatever you use, remember to also place a scratching post near the area to give your cat an alternative surface to scratch.

To distract your cat, clap your hands or shout when your cat starts to inappropriately scratch. Other options are noise-makers or motion-activated objects. To redirect, throw a treat or toy in the direction of an acceptable scratcher.

Cat owners who struggle with keeping their cats off counters may be well-acquainted with the above deterrents. In our home, they worked on two of our cats but not the third. According to the results of a study that Todd summarized, people who used deterrents saw no effect on their cat’s scratching habits.

Remove Threats: “Increased scratching behavior may be a sign of stress, including a threat or restriction to their resources,” said Dr. Kerl. If the threat is determined to be an outdoor cat, she recommended discouraging or removing unwanted cats from your yard, blocking the window view, and/or using feline pheromone spray.

Alleviate Stress: Feline pheromone spray is always a plausible option. It mimics the feline facial pheromone that makes cats feel calmer.

Claw Caps: These claw caps are applied to your cat’s claws much like fake nails are applied to your fingernails. The caps are shed automatically as the claw grows so you will have to replace them every 3-4 weeks. Soft Paws is the most well-known brand. Dr. Walton of Pet Care Center encourages owners to use claw caps regularly, because some cats can be harder to train than others. In addition, she noted that claw caps “are useful during the training process to help protect items.”

The website Purrfect Post proposes multi-faceted approach to scratcher training. Basically, the plan recommends owners find the right scratching posts, then place the posts strategically around the house, use deterrents to keep cats away from inappropriate locations and reinforcers to interest cats in scratching posts, and add a feline pheromone spray to scratchers. Evans cautioned that owners should be prepared for the plan to take longer than the advertised seven days “with an older cat with an ingrained habit unless you’re getting new furniture.”

Cat behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett cautions against the use of punishment. “Scratching is important and more complex than you may realize,” Bennett says. If you view the cat’s motivation for scratching as just a willful act of destruction, you run the risk of damaging the relationship you have with your cat because he’ll become afraid to scratch in your presence to avoid physical or verbal punishment. Since he still has a natural need to scratch, the behavior will still be done but it’ll occur when you aren’t around.”

FINAL WORDS

Even though scratching is a normal behavior for cats, there are times when a specialist should be consulted. Increased scratching behavior may be a sign of stress, and it is important to figure out the cause so you can address the issue and reduce the unwanted scratching behavior.

If you are unable to, consult your veterinarian for advice before taking the drastic step of having your cat declawed. “When you declaw a cat, you remove the first bone in every toe – the equivalent of amputating your fingers at the first joint,” explained Dr. Hiebner. “If the whole bone is not removed, they can regrow under the skin or penetrate through the pads causing deformities and pain. This also opens the cat to neurological pain and increases risk of arthritis because it changes their natural weight-bearing stance.”

Cats need time to learn the rules. With ample scratching posts and proper training, most cats will learn to scratch things appropriately.

 

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