Reviewed and updated for accuracy on January 2, 2019 by Katie Grzyb, DVM
Behind every cat behavior there is a reason, and understanding some basic—and natural—cat behaviors may save you a great deal of time and energy when your cat is scratching at your carpets and furniture—and your patience.
But before you start trying to deter your cat’s scratching, it is important to understand why cats scratch and why it’s such an essential part of their overall health and happiness.
Why Do Cats Need to Scratch?
Dr. Leslie Sinn, CPDT-KA, DVM, and founder of Behavior Solutions for Pets, explains it like this, “Scratching is a normal behavior for cats. They do it to physically stretch as well as maintain their claws (in preparation for hunting). Vigorous scratching helps to dislodge old nail covers, expose the new growth underneath, and is also used by cats to mark their territory.” Dr. Sinn adds that it is really only when cats are scratching our furniture do we label it destructive.
Why does this matter? Scratching is a natural and healthy behavior for cats, so you should be redirecting the behavior rather than trying to stop the behavior. Lisa Stemcosky, CCBC, CPDT-KA, SBA, founder of Pawlitically Correct, a behavior modification and training organization, is known for her work in the shelter animal community. She puts it like this, “Cats aren't intending to be destructive when they are scratching items in the home. Scratching is an instinctive behavior for cats, they have to do it. They scratch for many reasons. They scratch to groom their claws, to mark territory both visibly and with scent, when they are excited, and when they are stressed.”
Cat scratching is imperative in keeping cats healthy and well-balanced, so it is important that we give them the things they need to do it in a productive way. You wouldn’t withhold cat food or water from your cat, so why withhold something else they need to thrive?
Stemcosky explains, “Because scratching is so important to cats, you don't want to alter the behavior. But, you can teach cats to scratch in the appropriate places. Cats want to scratch in social areas and areas that are important to them.”
Redirecting the Behavior
Stemcosky explains, “First, you'll want to make the areas that you don't want them to scratch undesirable. For example, if your cat is scratching your sofa, you can put foil over the area that they are scratching. But you need to add appropriate scratching surfaces in that area for your cat. A study showed that cats prefer a tall, sturdy post covered with sisal. In addition to providing cats with an appropriate scratching substrate, you should reward them for using it, a yummy treat when you see them investigate it or scratch on it.”
Cat scratchers are great for providing your cat with an appropriate place for cat scratching. It may take some experimenting to find a cat scratcher that matches your cat's scratching style, but here are some suggestions to get started:
Does your cat prefer to scratch sides of furniture or your carpets? If she is a side-of-the-couch scratcher, start with a cat scratching post or hanging cat scratcher. If she is a carpet scratcher, try something horizontal like cat scratch boxes to mimic the floor she enjoys so much.
Which substrate does your cat prefer? As Stemcosky explained, sisal is a popular choice among the feline community, but there are a variety of other options out there. Try something made of recycled cardboard or carpeting.
Once you have chosen a cat scratcher, make sure to place it in the same area where your cat likes to do their scratching. You can also add a little bit of catnip onto the new cat scratcher to entice them over to that option. You want the cat to keep scratching but scratching the appropriate cat-designated furniture.
In understanding this basic instincts of our feline housemates and how to coexist comfortably, we can create a well-balanced home for all.
The Dangers of Deterrents and Declawing
Declawing is the amputation of part of the cat’s toes, and it is illegal in most cities nationwide, with strong support from the animal community. It strips the cat of its natural ability to climb and protect itself and can even cause chronic pain and behavioral changes. In fact, many rescue facilities have a no-declaw clause in their adoption contracts. Before considering this radical procedure, speak with your veterinarian regarding safer options.
Both Dr. Sinn and Stemcosky recommend against using cat deterrent spray. Stemcosky explains, “I never recommend using [deterrents], like canned air or a spray bottle to punish a cat for doing something. It's better to teach them what you want them to do and where. As for pheromone sprays, the studies are 50-50 on their effectiveness. Using them won't hurt anything but you may not get the benefits that you were hoping for.”
Dr. Sinn further explains, “The problem with using deterrent sprays is that the cat often associates the spray with the owner becoming worried or scared in the owner's presence. At best, they learn not to scratch when the owner is around but go right back to it when the owner is absent.” She goes on to say, “Indoor cats need attention and exercise, so spending at least 15 minutes of ‘me’ time with your cat will help—playing, grooming and petting.”
Image via iStock.com/pkline