Next to cats going outside of their litterboxes, scratching furniture and other inappropriate surfaces seems to be a problem that provokes most cat guardians into a state of high annoyance. How can something so cute and lovable as your kitty be so dang destructive? Do you really have to redefine your decor as “shabby chic”, feline-style (meaning, shredded to bits)? No! And you can find a solution that will work for both you and your feline family member – you CAN stop scratching without the need to declaw your cat, which can have unintended and detrimental consequences for everyone.
But first, let’s talk about why cats need their claws. Biologically, cats have claws for many important purposes: they use their claws to catch prey, they leave visual marks through scratching various objects (as well as scent marks, though glands in the pads), and to defend themselves from other cats and predators. They also use their claws to help anchor themselves to surfaces while they are stretching, which helps the muscles in their back stay healthy. Basically, paws need claws.
As a cat guardian, you know that sometimes having a tiny semi-wild predator living in our modern homes can be inconvenient, and at times, destructive! Given how wild “domestic” cats actually are (compared to dogs, who have been domesticated for longer than cats), it’s actually pretty amazing that cats and people don’t have more problems living together in an environment that is not natural for kitties. Clawing or scratching is completely natural and healthy for cats, but most people don’t like their stuff shredded to bits. However, you don’t need to worry – with a little work, you can give your cat appropriate scratching opportunities and save your home furnishings without even thinking about declawing (which is a painful, inhumane procedure that can cause serious physical and behavioral problems, which I will discuss another time). Try these tips to cut down on undesirable scratching habits:
- Give your cat appropriate scratching surfaces that she actually likes! What you might think should be a good scratcher might not be appealing for your cat, and she won’t use it if it’s not. A scratcher must be sturdy – if it moves or shakes during scratching, cats tend to not use them. They can be vertical (like a scratching post), angled or inclined, or horizontal (e.g., inexpensive cardboard scratchers). Scratching posts should be taller than the length your cat can stretch out, so she can reach up as far as possible and scratch comfortably. And they can be made of various materials – carpet, sisal rope, cardboard, or plain wood. Experiment! Find out what she likes best! She will let you know which surface she prefers.
- Is your kitty not using the scratcher consistently? Move the scratcher over to near where she SHOULDN’T be scratching (e.g., if she’s scratching the couch, move the scratcher right next to the couch where she’s scratching), sprinkle the scratcher with catnip, lure her over with a toy, and reward her (treats or praise) when she scratches. She’ll get the idea quickly! Once she’s established a habit of using the scratcher, you can slowly and gradually move it to a more convenient location.
- Speaking of location, put the scratcher in a socially significant area. If a scratching surface is out of the way, your kitty won’t use it! Cats like to scratch when they wake up from naps, so try putting a scratching surface near sleeping spots. Additionally, put scratchers along common routes that your cats travel in the home – near a doorway or in a hall (potentially), or an area that your cat likes to spend time in. Cats leave their scent behind on scratching surfaces, and it’s an easy way for them to mark their territory.
- Use clicker-training to let her know she’s scratching the right thing. Any time you catch your cat scratching a preferred surface (like a scratching post), you want to tell her she’s done a good job. You can use clicker training to do just that (although you don’t have to). You’ll have to first teach her what the clicker means – basically, you’ll teach her to associate the clicking sound with a treat – but then any time she hears the click, she knows she’s done something right. Then, give her a reward for scratching – treats, petting, praise…whatever she likes. It’s all about positive reinforcement!
- If she still occasionally scratches the furniture, don’t yell or punish – that will just create fear of you and could simply teach her to scratch there when you’re not around. Gently take her over to the scratcher and encourage her to use it (see above) – and reward her when she does! Again, using positive reinforcement is where it’s at – treats and praise are highly effective.
- You can discourage scratching on inappropriate surfaces by applying double-sided tape to the area temporarily (check out Sticky Paws, which comes in both strips and on a roll, just for this purpose). You can also try using aluminum foil or spray scents that cats don’t like near where the cat is scratching (citrus, mints, and cinnamon are not favorites of cats, but fyi, DON’T use essential oils because they can be highly toxic to kitties).
- Regular claw trimming will help, but kitties will still have the urge to scratch things because they need to stretch their back muscles and also mark objects with the scent glands in their paw pads.
- If claw trimming is difficult, there is help. Veterinarians can trim your kitty’s claws, and there are even people that can come to your home to do the job to save you a trip out (and you won’t have to stress your cat out by getting her into a carrier). Alternatively, the application of plastic nail caps (“Soft Paws”) is a popular method for keeping claws from damaging both furniture and people! And, they come in plenty of colors (including glitter styles), so your cat can be furniture-safe AND stylish!
I hope these have given you some things to try. And that’s key – TRY. If one thing doesn’t work, try another! However, if, after you’ve tried the above tips and are still having problems with your cat clawing things she shouldn’t, give your favorite cat behavior consultant a call (hint hint). I’ll be happy to help!