Ask Elizabeth: July 2010

Dear Elizabeth: We recently adopted a nine-week-old kitten. Shes only a tiny ball of fluff, but already shes using her teeny nails to scratch the brand-new couch that we just bought to replace a couch our recently deceased cat had ruined. I am opposed to declawing cats, but my husband is adamant that we will not be buying any new furniture in the near future. We both love our sweet Fiona, but need some advice. Do you have any tips to help protect our furniture?

AI sympathize with owners who become frustrated by the scratching behaviors of their pets. But Im with you … Id much rather avoid surgery and work on the scratching behavior directly. Weve come a long way in understanding and working with normal feline behaviors – including scratching. With patience and consistency, Im sure that you will be able to keep your kitten happy and the couch unscathed!

Scratching is a normal behavior that cats use to help them mark their territory and to keep their nails sharp and primed for hunting and defensive purposes. For an outdoor cat, scratching trees serves these purposes and causes little harm. However, when indoor cats sharpen their claws on couches and drapes, they can quickly ruin their owners possessions, causing frustration to even the most loving owners.

Fortunately, you are starting with a kitten, and with some consistent training measures and patience, you should be able to train Fiona to scratch surfaces you choose to provide as an alternative to your couch. Older cats can also be successfully re-trained, but the training period may be longer to overcome ingrained behaviors. The keys to success will be providing attractive scratching posts, encouraging appropriate while discouraging inappropriate scratching behaviors, and keeping your cats nails trimmed. (Detailed discussions of why cats scratch and how you can discourage destructive scratching behaviors can be viewed on a new Cornell Partners in Animal Health video Im confident that you will be successful with the methods outlined in the video and described below, and that you will be able to enjoy both your new couch and Fiona.

The first step is choosing a scratching post that Fiona will like. Most cats prefer scratching posts made from sisal rope, corrugated cardboard or natural wood. Many scratching posts are covered in carpet, but cats may snag their nails in the carpet loops, becoming frightened and avoiding further use of the post. Some cats prefer vertical posts while others prefer horizontal surfaces to scratch on … it may be best to provide both vertical and horizontal scratching posts, at least until you determine her preferences. The post should be sturdy enough not to wobble or fall over when Fiona uses it.

A key to successful use of scratching posts is placing them in prominent locations around the house. Remember that scratching serves to help cats mark their territory. If you banish the scratching posts to far-flung corners of the house, Fiona will continue to mark/scratch the couch and other surfaces in the heart of the home. Instead, place a scratching post next to the couch shes been scratching, providing an enticing alternative to the couch, and place other scratching posts in locations where Fiona likes to spend time. You can encourage Fionas use of the scratching post by sprinkling catnip on the post, playing with Fiona by hanging toys just above the post, and praising or providing treats whenever Fiona uses the post.

Discouragement is an important part of the re-training process. You can alter the surface of the couch that Fiona is scratching by adding double sided-tape to the area she scratches or covering the surfaces with aluminum foil since cats find these materials unattractive. Do not use physical punishment since physical punishments can lead to aggression, and cats simply learn to scratch when owners arent around. Spraying with a squirt gun isnt effective either, since owners cannot be present all of the time. Setting up a motion detector alarm system, using an air canister or noise alarm that goes off when the couch is approached can be quite effective since these measures will be on duty, providing consistent discouragement, even when no one is home.

The final key to damage prevention is to keep Fionas nails trimmed. The Partners in Animal Health website has a video that can show you how to trim her nails. If, despite following the steps outlined above, Fiona persists in scratching your couch, plastic nail covers can be placed on her claws, effectively preventing damage to your possessions. Love, Elizabeth