Why Do Cats Scratch Things?

orange kitten scratching chair

Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t tear up the furniture or carpets to be vindictive or to sharpen their claws. Scratching is actually more akin to grooming than sharpening, as the purpose is often to shed old claw sheaths from the front claws (cats usually chew the sheaths from their back claws).

Cats also have scent glands in their paw pads, so in addition to removing claw sheaths, scratching leaves not only marks, but also the feline’s personal scent signature to let others know that the item or space is his. Humans can’t detect these scent signatures, but another cat can.

Scratching may also act as a stress reliever, because it often increases in response to territorial conflicts or other stressors. A cat may vigorously tackle his scratch post or a less appropriate surface when he’s frustrated, tense, or anxious.

How to stop cats scratching furniture and carpets

Many cats love nubby upholstery because it mimics the texture of tree bark. Once a cat has claimed a piece of furniture or spot of carpet, it’s difficult to change the habit because his personal scent signature will keep luring him back.

Punishment doesn’t work with cats – it just increases anxiety, which can lead to more undesirable behaviour. A better strategy is to make the abused surfaces less appealing by covering them with material that cats don’t like for a few weeks or so until the habit is broken. Good deterrents include:

    • Plastic carpet runner, pointy side up
    • Sticky Paws tape
    • Sand paper
    • Products such as the Cat Scat Mat, a flexible mesh grid with plastic points

Before removing the deterrent, clean the area thoroughly to eradicate any scent traces that might encourage the cat to target the same place again. Using a non-toxic enzymatic cleaning product such as Nature’s Miracle is recommended.

Some people also have luck with herbal deterrents such as Only Natural Pet Herbal Scratch Deterrent or pheromone products such as Feliway. Additional solutions include buying furniture coverings made of thick fabric to protect the targeted item or keeping a blanket over it when not in use.

Provide a good scratch post

Cats need to scratch, so providing at least one scratch post or access to a tree trunk or tree stump is necessary. The post shouldn’t be tucked away in some faraway corner of the house, as the cat will be less likely to use it. Placing it near the cat’s inappropriate scratching target will ensure that the post gets noticed and may help to redirect the scratching behaviour.

When purchasing or building a scratch post, there are several things to consider. A good scratch post is:

    • Sturdy enough that it won’t wobble or fall over – if it comes crashing down, the cat may avoid it forever
    • Covered with appealing material – sisal twine is usually appreciated, though many cats also like carpet or carpet backing, nubby fabric, burlap, cork, cardboard, or wood
    • Tall enough for the cat to stand upright or long enough that he can stretch out horizontally while scratching (ideally at least 3 feet in length or height for an adult cat)

To increase the likelihood that a cat will choose the post over the furniture, purchase or construct a post that has coverings of a similar texture to the cat’s favourite piece of furniture or carpeting.

Make the scratch post appealing

Many cat owners are disappointed to find that their cats ignore the scratch posts they’ve purchased or built. To make a scratch post more appealing:

    • Place it near the cat’s sleep spot.
    • Rub a little catnip into it.
    • Play with the cat near the post.
    • Place the cat’s favourite toys on the post.
    • Provide treats, praise, and affection when the cat is on or near the post.

Most experts recommend against holding a cat’s paws and simulating a scratching motion in the hope of training him to scratch the post. This is ineffective with many cats, and may even cause an aversion in some.

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

References:

    • Becker, M., DVM, & Willard, J., DVM. (2009). “Why Do Cats Scratch?” CatChannel.com.
    • Christensen, W., and the Staff of The Humane Society of the United States. (2002). The Humane Society of the United States Complete Guide to Cat Care. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
    • Estep, D.Q., PhD, & Hetts, S, PhD. (2009). “Why Cats Scratch Things.” Animal Behaviour Society, AnimalBehaviour.org.

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