Cats scratching surfaces in our house that we value, such as our furniture, carpets, and other items is a behavior that many people find very difficult to live with. This type of behavior can lead people to re-home their cats, or de-claw them, a painful operation that is completely unnecessary. Once we understand why cats are inappropriately scratching, we can provide them with new surfaces that are acceptable to use.
Let’s talk about why cats scratch destructively in the first place. Scratching is a completely normal behavior that is vital to felines’ psychological and physical wellbeing. Scratching keeps claws healthy, relieves stress, and allows a cat to stretch the entire length of his body. It is also a method of communication, leaving scent and visual markers, and can be used to attract attention in social situations. Even cats that are declawed will rub their paws, stretch their bodies, and deposit scent markers on surfaces. These scent markers say “I was here.” And not just that a cat was there, it communicates that a particular cat was there because cats have scents that are unique to the individual.
We don’t want cats to stop scratching because not only is it a part of who they are as cats, but also it’s also an important behavior that allows them to communicate to other cats who they are in the world. So what can we do to help cats scratch in places that are appropriate in our human world?
- Create an environment to satisfy your cat’s normal need to scratch by providing good quality scratching posts with a variety of surfaces in key areas around the house that are both horizontal and vertical surfaces.
- The scratching post should be tall enough or long enough so the cat can fully stretch his body.
- They should be sturdy and have a texture such as sisal carpeting, or corrugated cardboard, basically emulating what the cat would find outside like the bark of a tree, or other rough-sided surface.
- Never punish a cat for scratching an inappropriate surface.
What if the cat is damaging the furniture or scratching in another inappropriate place?
- First, clean the surface with an enzymatic cleaner to remove the scent marking left by the cat.
- Deter scratching in that specific location by applying double-sided tape (like Sticky Paws) or another surface that is unappealing to the cat.
- Then place the new scratching post near that location and spray it with catnip spray or rub it with catnip to make it appealing.
- This is self-reinforcing in that he will automatically be rewarded by having a positive experience scratching the post, and be further reinforced as he lays down new scent markers.
- In addition, you can give verbal praise, throw him a food treat when he’s done scratching, or if you have done any clicker training, click and treat his use of the new post to reinforce the behavior.
- Place multiple posts around the house in the areas where he was scratching before, in similar scenarios (i.e., horizontal surfaces should be replaced with horizontal surfaces).
By creating an environment where the previous undesirable locations are unavailable or unpleasant to use (like applying the double-sided tape), while simultaneously installing locations that have all the right characteristics to create a positive experience, your cat should transition into the desirable behavior pattern of using the scratching posts. Make sure to provide multiple options around your house, and you will have a very happy kitty.
By Ami Somers, Cat Behaviorist – FBST Companion Animal Sciences Institute