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Scratching Behavior in Cats: Various Approaches

By Lisa Restine, DVM; Lynn Buzhardt, DVM

Care & Wellness, Surgical Conditions, Pet Services

Happy cats with happy cat owners in a happy home…what a beautiful relationship!

declawing-cats-controversy-considerationsSometimes this relationship hits a stumbling block and life is not so happy. Sometimes a seemingly harmless feline action can tip the scale and put cat owners in a difficult situation.

Sometimes what a happy cat does naturally – extending her claws to scratch what she sees as an appropriate surface – can tip the harmonious family balance and can be frustrating for cat owners.

Why do cats scratch?

Cats scratch and claw for several reasons. First, scratching serves to shorten and condition the claws. Cats in the wild do not have owners or veterinarians to give them pedicures, so they take matters into their own hands (paws). Second, scratching allows an effective, whole body stretch. Cats stretch their muscles as they rise on their hind feet, arch their back, extend their legs, and extrude their claws. Third, and perhaps most importantly, cats scratch to mark their territory, both visibly, with claw marks, and invisibly, by leaving the scent from their foot pads. In addition, cats may exert their authority or play with a swipe of their paws to establish their place in the household.

Why is scratching a problem?

When domestic cats live primarily outdoors, scratching is seldom a problem for the owners. Cats direct their scratching at prominent objects, such as tree trunks and fence posts. They swat at flying insects and flowers swaying in the breeze. Of course, if they inflict wounds when they swat at other cats, or they get stung by insects, infections and abscesses may result that require veterinary attention. But otherwise, scratching and swatting outside does not tip the familial balance.

Cats residing primarily or exclusively indoors do not have tree trunks readily available, and may run into disapproval with their owners when they instead scratch furniture, walls, or use their claws to climb up the drapes. Claws can also cause injuries to people when cats are overly playful or resist handling. This will certainly tip the harmony scale.

With a good understanding of feline behavior and a little bit of effort, it should be possible to prevent or avoid most clawing problems and maintain a healthy balance.

Understanding your cat's behavior

There are many ways to redirect or prohibit your cat's destructive scratching habits. Understanding your cat's behavior will help you approach scratching solutions.

Consider your cat’s nature. Understand that indoor cats need outlets for scratching and marking. They also need a regular daily routine of social play, object play, and exercise. So spending time with your cat is a good first step to deter scratching. In the wild, cats hunt their prey, eat, clean themselves, and then sleep. Mimicking this behavior with a play activity followed by mealtime may provide a good routine for your cat to follow.

Consider your cat’s motivation. For cats that suddenly start scratching indoors, figuring out why is key to stopping the behavior. Some cats may increase their territorial marking (e.g., scratching, urine marking) in situations of anxiety or conflict. Scratching of new areas may be related to anxiety caused by a change in the household, such as the introduction of a new cat, moving to a new house, or a change in the family’s schedule. These changes tip the balance of your cat’s comfortable world.

Consider your cat's anxiety level. Decreasing your cat’s anxiety level may eliminate the scratching. Gradually introducing your cat to a new place or new family members (human, dog, or cat) will help her feel more secure. When changes in household routine occur (e.g., start of a new school year or job), spending quality time with your cat is very important, as is providing distractions during your absence (e.g., food hidden inside toys).

Consider your cat’s natural territorial instincts. If your cat scratches only new objects or furniture she may simply be marking unmarked territory. This will usually pass when she develops a sense of ownership of the new objects. Resident cats will also re-mark territory if someone new (human, dog, or cat) moves into the house. There are pheromone products (such as Feliway®) that help decrease household marking. Your veterinarian can help you decide if this type of product would be useful for your cat’s situation.

Consider medical therapy. If other signs of anxiety, such as a change in appetite or a change in social behavior (e.g., becoming more aggressive or more withdrawn) occur, consult your veterinarian. The combination of adjusting household situations and spending more time with your cat along with medical therapy may be needed.

Consider entertaining your cat. Providing your cat with a more enriched daily routine, including multiple feeding sessions, additional opportunities for social/predatory play, and new objects to manipulate and explore, may help to better settle her at times when she might otherwise be scratching.

Consider making physical changes in your house. Sometimes cat owners need to consider making changes in the household to stop anxiety-based or behavior-related scratching. If your cat returns to the same scratching sites repeatedly, consider making these sites less accessible. Consider confining your cat when you are not at home to supervise her, or cat-proof your home. If the scratching occurs in just a few rooms, keep her off limits by closing doors or using child-proof locks or barricades. To simplify matters when you are away, you can confine your cat to a single room that has been effectively cat- proofed. Of course, the cat’s scratching post, toys, water and food bowls, and litter box should be located in this room.

If cat-proofing is not possible or the cat continues to use one or two pieces of furniture, you may consider placing a scratching post directly in front of the furniture that is being scratched. Take a good look at the surfaces of the scratched furniture and ensure that the surface of the post is covered with a material similar to those for which the cat has shown a preference. Some scratching posts are even designed to be wall mounted or hung on doors.

What are some approaches to try for persistent scratching?

Provide scratching options. Train the cat to scratch only appropriate objects. Cats are usually about 8 weeks old when they begin scratching, so that’s the ideal time to start the training process. Place acceptable scratching posts in various parts of the house where the cat likes to spend time and one close to the cat’s sleeping quarters. Providing the proper outlet for the natural need to scratch may prevent any unbalanced household situations from ever developing.

Because cats use their scratching posts for marking and stretching as well as sharpening their claws, the post should be tall enough for the cat to scratch while standing on her hind legs with the forelegs extended, and sturdy enough so that it does not topple. Some cats prefer a scratching post with a corner so that two sides can be scratched at once, while other cats may prefer a horizontal scratching post.

scratching_postSpecial consideration should be given to the surface texture of the post. Commercial posts are often covered with tightly woven material for durability, but many cats prefer a loosely woven material where the claws can hook and tear the material during scratching. Remember that scratching is also a marking behavior and cats want to leave a visual mark. Good post covers include cardboard, carpet, wood, and sisal.

"Commercial posts are often covered with tightly woven material for durability, but many cats prefer a loosely woven material where the claws can hook and tear the material during scratching."

Lure your cat to the post. Use one of the commercially available pheromones or catnip to lure your cat to the scratching post, or place a few toys or her food bowl nearby. A new product (Feliscratch® by Feliway) looks promising to help redirect your cat’s scratching from undesirable objects to her scratching post. It combines pheromones, catnip, and a dye, that when applied to your cat’s scratching post, will attract your cat to scratch there. Reward your cat generously with treats and affection for scratching her scratching post, especially in the beginning. This will help her to both understand what you want from her, and to develop a positive association with scratching there. Ask your veterinarian about commercially available products that may help to modify your cat’s behavior.

Make inappropriate scratching unpleasant. Aversion therapy may decrease destructive scratching. The simplest approach is to cover the scratched surface with a less appealing material, like aluminum foil. Or attach tin pie plates to the furniture by hanging them from string safety pinned to furniture arms that will create noise and a bit of a breeze when the cat attempts to scratch. Cats do not like sudden noises or breezes and may opt for the scratching post instead of the furniture. Applying special tape (like Sticky Paws®) to furniture is another option. Some cat owners booby-trap problem areas so that either scratching or approaching the area is unpleasant for the cat (e.g., motion detector non-toxic air spray or alarm, odor repellents, or stacked plastic cups that topple when the cat scratches).

Remember: None of these deterrents will successfully stop inappropriate scratching unless the cat has an alternative scratching area that is comfortable, appealing, and easily accessible.

Cover the claws. Apply soft plastic caps (like Soft Paws®) to the nails. These nail caps are attached with glue to a clipped toenail. The nails continue to grow and the caps eventually fall off making frequent re-application necessary. Most cats tolerate this quick and painless process which can be performed in the veterinary clinic or at home.cat_nail_trim

Trim the nails. Lastly, all cats with claws need regular nail trimming. When done properly, clipping decreases the cat’s need to remove the shedding nail. Most cats require monthly trimming to keep the nails at a length the owner feels is appropriate. If you need help trimming your cat’s nails, ask your veterinary health team to show you how to hold your cat and trim her nails.

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