Understanding Your Cats Need to Scratch

How to Live Happily With Claws

Its an all too familiar scenario: Just as youre dozing off, you hear the rip-rip of your cats claws. You hope shes not scratching the new sofa – the one that just replaced the previously shredded couch.

Nature intended cats to have claws. While we cannot change that fact, there are ways to constructively channel those daggers.

Why cats scratch
The act of scratching serves a number of purposes for our cats – despite the fact that we often feel that the destruction of our sofa is their primary goal. Since scratching is such an integral part of cat behavior, it is in our own best interest (and our furnitures) for us to understand why they do it and to help them redirect the energy.

First, scratching serves as a feline pedicure. The action removes the outer sheath, leaving behind a fresh, sharp, and conditioned claw. Second, in the wild, as well as indoors, scratching serves as a kind of calling card, since scent glands are embedded in the paw pads. Its one way for the cat to mark its territory. Third, it feels good. Have you ever noticed the look of pleasure and concentration in a cat that is really into its scratching post?

Its never too early to start teaching proper scratching manners, says Karen Overall, VMD. And you can begin, she says, by teaching your cat that clipping nails is okay.

Its easier with a kitten if you manipulate the nails with a clipper daily and cut as needed, according to the veterinarian, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Trimming your cats claws also helps them get used to having their paws handled. Some cats even enjoy a paw massage. (CatWatch, June 2002)

Teaching good scratching habits
Do not encourage a kitten to use its claws for play; provide proper toys, including soft ones that she can really sink her claws into.

All cats should have good sturdy scratchers. While its rarely ever advisable to let your cat roam freely outside, cats that do have trees and other surfaces to use hardly ever inappropriately scratch inside the house. If youre adopting a cat that lived outside and you plan to make her an indoor kitty, Overall recommends bringing in a log that offers a more familiar scratching surface. Regardless of what kind of scratching post you use, lavish praise and special treats when your kitty uses it. Lacing the surfaces of the post liberally with catnip might further encourage use by catnip-responding cats.

If youre starting from scratch with a kitten, provide targets with a variety of surfaces (sisal, carpet, cardboard, even sandpaper) that are angled, vertical, and flat in various locations. Especially in sleeping quarters and other areas where the kitty likes to hang out, a good scratch and a stretch are naturally appealing when they first awake. Investing in several good scratching posts costs less than a new sofa. Overall also suggests corner combs for cats to use when marking with their facial glands.

What should you not do? Punish, says Overall. All your cat will learn (from punishment) is to scratch in your absence.

While yelling, rattling a can of pennies, or using a squirt bottle may distract your cat momentarily, she will probably move to a less conspicuous area and become more fearful of you. If you catch her in the act, pick her up and bring her to the preferred location – the catnip-laced scratcher or log. And, if you really need to protect that Chippendale settee, consider isolating the cat when youre not around to supervise.

Scratching deterrents
Soft Paws nail caps come in four sizes and can be applied by a veterinarian or an adventurous owner. Rather than deterring scratching, the blunt plastic caps simply lessen the damage caused. They can be difficult to put on a less-than-docile cat, says Overall. Theyre fine if you start young or if the cat is compliant.

Sticky Paws are transparent adhesive strips applied directly to fabric. It can also be used on counters, stereo speakers, draperies, carpets, or other surfaces youd prefer your cat not scratch. A less expensive alternative is double-sided strapping tape. However, Overall believes that sticky tape teaches the cat to avoid the area – not to shift the preference to something more desirable. She adds that if a cat gets wrapped up in the tape, its a terrifying experience and potentially injurious to owner and cat alike.

The bottom line is to realize that scratching is natural behavior. If you keep forcing the cat to more limited options, your last option may be to have a sacrificial chair, Overall says. The more options you offer, the happier you and your cat will be.