The Mind of Your Cat: 09/03

Question: One of my cats is ruining the edges of my carpet. I have tried cat repellent sprays and they dont work. I have put tape across the seam of the carpet, but it looks very tacky. I have sprayed him with a water bottle and picked him up and moved him to his scratching pad – with no luck. Now, the carpet is unraveling and my husband has had enough. Do you have any other suggestions?

Answer: Destructive behavior performed by our cats can certainly try our patience. Of course, scratching surfaces is unquestionably a normal feline behavior.

Scratching serves several purposes, including grooming and marking. Hence, a cat could never appreciate that the behavior may be socially unacceptable. But there are many techniques to reduce or even eliminate socially unacceptable scratching of surfaces. You are fortunate that your cat has chosen only one inappropriate location for this behavior. Your task is likely to be much easier than it would have been if your cat had targeted a variety of surfaces and locations.

It is tempting to reach for one of the many aversive devices on the market. Punishment strategies abound including water bottles and remote-activated gadgets. Yet attempts to get a cat to STOP are likely to fail unless we 1) determine the likely motivation for the behavior and 2) offer the cat a suitable substitute behavior.

One motivation for scratching is normal claw maintenance. Most cats select a favorite surface for this grooming process, then continue to use this substrate.

Popular choices include loose carpet or upholstery, cardboard, and wood. Some cats scratch surfaces that are horizontal, while others reach up while scratching. Scratching may occur whenever a cat encounters his preferred surface, regardless of its location.

In addition to serving a grooming function, scratching surfaces serves a communication function. Both visual and olfactory cues are present in a surface that has been marked by claws. A cat is likely to leave such a mark in a location that is fairly prominent. The mark would indicate to another cat, I have been here.

In your case, it is also possible that the scratching was first motivated by a desire to play. Perhaps there was a tiny loop or raised area of carpet that was attractive and easily accessible. With a little manipulation, the carpet could have become a novel toy. What to do? First, put some interesting toys in the area. Rotate them to assure that they remain interesting.

Next, find a small piece of carpet with a texture that resembles yours. To keep the material secure, you may fasten it to a small board. Place the material flat on the floor, close to the spot that your cat favors. Next, as a temporary measure, place some of the sticky tape underneath and alongside the carpet square. It will take your cat a few days, or even a few weeks, to get the new carpet in shape.

Once your kitty has begun to scratch the carpet piece, begin to move the square little by little to a location away from the foyer. Take your time with this – and be sure that your cat is moving along with you. When you are several feet from the original location, begin to gradually remove some of the sticky tape.

If your cat is scratching primarily for grooming purposes, then you may be able to continue to move the carpet piece until you are quite happy with its location. Keep in mind that most cats seem to scratch upon waking. If that is the case, then you will want to keep this new horizontal scratching board near a favorite resting area.

As was mentioned earlier, scratching also serves the purpose of marking an area. Since your cat is scratching in the foyer, he may be communicating to outside cats or people that this is his place. In that case, you may follow the above-described plan of diverting the behavior to a carpet piece, and then gradually moving the piece. However, you will not want to move the square too far from the entry. It will not serve any signaling function if it is placed out of that socially significant location. Instead, you might plan to leave the square in a somewhat convenient place within the area of the foyer.

There are other motivations that may underlie a cats scratching in a foyer. Some cats are distressed when left home alone. A cat might engage in scratching near an exit door after his favorite person has left the house. The act of scratching as well as chemicals deposited while engaged in scratching may serve to comfort the cat.

If your cat does most of his scratching when you are out of the house, separation-related anxiety should be considered. Contact your veterinarian as this condition demands specific, aggressive therapy.

To summarize, the basic principles of changing a behavior include removing access to the behavior and providing ready access to an alternative, acceptable behavior.

Finally, in the unlikely event that all else fails, your cat can be fitted with claw caps. Your veterinarian can show you how to apply these plastic tips. The caps usually remain in place for about 6 weeks.