Why do cats scratch?

Scratching surfaces is normal feline behavior. Although scratching does serve to shorten and condition the claws, another important reason cats scratch is to mark their territory. Scratching a surface leaves visible claw marks and releases pheromones (chemical messengers), which are located between the toes and in the foot pads.

“Scratching surfaces is normal feline behavior.”

Cats that live primarily outdoors usually claw prominent objects such as tree trunks or fence posts. Cats that live primarily or exclusively indoors are still inclined to claw prominent objects and do not discriminate based on an object’s personal value. Cats scratch hard surfaces such as furniture, walls, and doors. They may also scratch malleable soft surfaces such as cardboard or loosely woven carpet and upholstery. Sometimes, scratching occurs inadvertently when cats use their claws to grasp surfaces, including drapery while climbing.

In situations of anxiety or conflict, territorial marking may occur. Coincidentally, there may also be an increase in facial marking (bunting) and urine or fecal marking.

Cats may also threaten or play with a swipe of their paws. Play swatting with other cats seldom leads to injuries because cats have a fairly thick skin and coat for protection. When play does get a little rough, most cats are pretty good at sorting things out between themselves. Occasionally, rough play or territorial fighting does lead to injuries or abscesses that would require veterinary attention.

Claws can cause injuries to people when their cats are overly playful or when they become defensive, such as during handling or restraint.

“With a good understanding of cat behavior and a little bit of effort, it should be possible to prevent or avoid most clawing problems…”

With a good understanding of cat behavior and a little bit of effort, it should be possible to prevent or avoid most clawing problems, even for those cats that live exclusively indoors.

How do I encourage my cat to scratch in an acceptable place?

Cats scratch to mark and to groom their claws. They often stretch while scratching a surface. You can set your cat up for success by providing your cat with plenty of appropriate scratchable surfaces. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Choose a scratching post tall enough for your cat to stretch out completely while standing on his hind legs. Make sure it is sturdy so it will not wobble or tip when your cat uses it.
  • Offer multiple heights – standing vertical items as well as items that lay flat or horizontal.
  • Offer a post hanging from a door that your cat scratches.
  • Choose a surface your cat likes! Offer a few surfaces such as cardboard, natural wood, loop-free carpet, sisal, and soft fabric.
  • Observe your cat’s habits and preferences!

“Every cat will have their likes and dislikes about scratching areas.”

Every cat will have their likes and dislikes about scratching areas. Watch what your cat does when he scratches. Does he stand tall and scratch? Or does he pull up on carpeting or blankets on a horizontal surface? Does he scratch on wood, walls, round surfaces, or corners? Offer locations, surfaces, and shapes which match the desires of your cat.

How can I encourage my cat to use his post?

Placement is important when trying to entice your cat to use a scratching post. Because scratching is also a marking behavior, most cats prefer to use a post that is placed in a prominent location. The best location to place the post, although not necessarily the most practical, is where your cat has already chosen to scratch. It may be helpful to place the post in the center of a room or near furniture that your cat was trying to scratch until he reliably uses it, then gradually move it to a location your family prefers.

Even after you move the post, plan to keep it in the room where your cat spends a great deal of time and wishes to leave his “message.” A good way to get your cat to approach and use the post is to turn the scratching area into an interesting and desirable play center. Perches to climb on, spaces to climb into, and toys mounted on ropes or springs are highly appealing to most cats. Placing a few play toys, cardboard boxes, catnip treats, or even the food bowl in the area should help to keep your cat occupied. Sometimes, rubbing the post with tuna oil will increase its attractiveness. Food rewards can also be given when your cat is observed scratching at his post. Some products, such as Pavlov’s Cat®, are designed to reward a cat automatically by dispensing food rewards each time the cat scratches. For some cats, multiple posts in several locations will be necessary.

If your cat continues to use one or two pieces of furniture, you might want to consider moving the furniture or placing a scratching post directly in front of the furniture that is being scratched. Ensure that the surface of the post is covered with a material similar to the fabric for which your cat has shown a preference.

You may also be able to make a specific surface less appealing for your cat by covering the surface with double-sided tape or Sticky Paws®. Always put an appropriate post very close by or your cat may move away from the covered surface only to select yet another valuable object to scratch.

Can’t I just stop my cat from scratching?

Scratching is a normal and healthy need for all cats. It is impractical and unfair to expect cats to stop scratching entirely. Cats that go outside may be content to do all their scratching outdoors but the urge may still arise when the cat comes back indoors. Cats that spend most of their time indoors need outlets for their scratching and marking behaviors. While it may not be possible to stop a cat from scratching, it should be possible to direct the scratching, climbing, and play to appropriate areas indoors. Once you understand your cat’s substrate and location preferences for scratching, you can provide suitable posts in appropriate locations for your cat. Other enrichment can also be beneficial, as keeping your cat busy with toys and individualized play time may reduce the frequency of scratching.

“…keeping your cat busy with toys and individualized play time may reduce the frequency of scratching.”

Keeping your cat’s nails trimmed will help prevent damage from scratching. Using positive reinforcement and a gentle gradual approach, most cats can easily be trained to allow nail trims at home. Trimming the nails every one to two weeks will help keep the tips blunted and diminish damage from scratching in unwanted locations.

In some situations, to prevent damage while you are learning about your cat’s scratching post preferences, you may consider partial confinement or restricting your cat from certain areas, particularly when you are not available to supervise and keep your cat engaged. If you do restrict your cat to a room or area, be sure to provide plenty of desirable scratching surfaces as well as fun toys, water, food, and a litter box.

Can scratching be related to a behavioral disorder or stress?

In most cases, scratching is simply normal albeit undesirable due to the damage it causes. When scratching continues even after your cat has been provided with favored scratching posts and plenty of enrichment, it is important to determine whether there might be another motivation for the scratching. When, where, and how often your cat scratches might be a clue as to the possible cause.

Scratching can occur when cats are frustrated. A cat experiencing frustration might scratch a closed cabinet in an attempt to gain access to food or toys or may target a door in an attempt to reach a person, pet, or outdoor space.

When prominent objects that were previously untouched are suddenly targeted, particularly if you notice your cat beginning to eliminate outside the litter box, your cat may be experiencing distress, and the scratching may relate to marking behavior. Marking can increase when a cat experiences anxiety or frustration related to a change in schedule or a change in the relationship with a household person or pet.

If you notice changes in your cat’s pattern of scratching, check with your veterinarian. Your cat may be experiencing pain or another health condition. Next, a behavioral consultation may be needed to identify the underlying behavioral condition and find an appropriate treatment.

“If you notice changes in your cat’s pattern of scratching, check with your veterinarian.”

If you do suspect that your cat is distressed, be sure that your cat has plenty of personalized enrichment with opportunities for social and predatory play, new objects to manipulate, and easy access to food and litter boxes. The feline facial pheromone Feliway® may be applied in locations that are being marked.

My cat is using her claws to injure family members. What should I do?

Cats may use their claws during play or even scratch when climbing onto or jumping off a lap. Keeping the claws short will reduce injury. Be sure that you never use your hands or feet as toys and always use an object that can be batted instead. A fleece or towel can be used to protect your lap or to train your cat to sit next to you when needed. Soft Paws® nail covers may be used to reduce damage or injury caused by the claws while behavior training is underway. The covers need to be replaced often so, for most cats, they are not a permanent solution. If your cat actively swats at you outside of play, then a behavior consultation is necessary to determine the underlying motivation. Cats can swat when fearful, frustrated, in pain, or for other reasons, and an accurate assessment is needed as cat scratches can be very serious.

How do I punish my cat for inappropriate scratching?

All forms of physical punishment should be avoided because they can cause fear or aggression.

Because scratching is a natural and normal behavior every cat needs to do, working with a qualified professional to rule out underlying social causes, anxiety, or fear-related scratching behavior is an important part of changing your cat’s behavior. Punishment is likely to worsen cases of unwanted scratching that are motivated by anxiety or conflict and can create a permanent fear of people.

What about declawing my cat?

Declaw surgery is the amputation of the last joint of the toe. This surgery can have serious, harmful physical and behavioral outcomes for cats, including chronic pain in the feet, chronic pain in the spine from changing weight-bearing, increased biting behavior, increased inappropriate elimination, and more. Because of the harm this surgery can cause, multiple cities, counties, states, and countries have banned the procedure.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, American Association of Feline Practitioners, Fear Free, and many other professional veterinary organizations oppose or prohibit declaw surgery.

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