Why do cats scratch?
Cats are very good at leaving a strong impression, but they can often do this in a more literal way by scratching our furniture, carpet and other areas inside the home. Cats scratch surfaces and furniture for 3 main reasons. Stretching and scratching is a great way to keep themselves supple and limber; many cats will stretch out for a good old scratch when they first wake from a nap. Scratching also helps to shed the outer layer of the claw and keep their nails needle-sharp. Cats also scratch as a type of marking behaviour. So while we can work on the final reason and teach your cat more appropriate places to scratch, it is actually a very natural and healthy behaviour.
A good scratching post
Providing a good scratching post, which you can easily knock up at home with recycled materials, is an excellent way to ensure your cat can fulfil its needs, without damaging your home. Many store-bought scratching posts are too short and do not allow a full-length stretch for your cat and many cats are particularly fussy about what substrate they prefer to use. My own cat would much prefer to use the wooden door-frames, rather than sisal rope or carpet, as most shop-bought posts are made of. So the solution there is to make a wooden scratching post out of an old tree branch. Some scratching posts are also not stable enough for your cat to get good traction and lean their entire weight upon. If your cat prefers to use carpet or horizontal surfaces, perhaps think about building a horizontal post, or simply buy some carpet offcuts to place in the locations your cat is using. You may need to watch what carpet you use, as some has a very strong offensive odour to cats (possibly due to the glue and underlay used), so may not be a huge hit.
Is my cat scratching to scent mark?
Cats that scratch all over the home on various different surfaces and furniture may be using the scent glands under their nails to make their environment smell comforting. Cats that scratch less frequently and in more private locations may be just sharpening their nails. Marking behaviour often increases with stressful events like moving house or bringing new people or furniture home, or can be due to other stressors like the cat from next door coming and urinating on the doorstep. Cats are very scent-oriented; their sense of smell is 14 times more sensitive than ours and they see the world in clouds of different odours. Even something as simple as a dirty litter tray, a visit to the Vet or living in a multi-cat household can be stressful for a cat. Cats are creatures of habit, love their routine and show their stress in very subtle ways. If your cat is scratching all over the place or having accidents outside the litter tray, see your Vet for assistance to rule out medical causes. You can also try Feliway, which we will talk about later.
Location is everything
If you have an appropriate scratching post, which is long enough and stable, the first thing to think about is location. If your cat is typically using a particular area of the house to scratch or spends a great deal of time in a particular place, put the post there. Once your cat is using it regularly, you can then gradually move it (about 10cm per week) to a better location if you need to. Cats will often scratch when they wake, so placing a post near their bed can encourage the use of this post and not your couch.
Encouraging your cat to use the post
To encourage your cat, whenever you see your cat scratching, if the post is close by, gently move them to the post and show them how to use it. Encourage them to scratch by scratching there yourself, the noise will often spark a little interest. You can also use catnip, if you cat is a fan to encourage use. This dried herb has a mild, temporary, euphoric effect on some cats and can be bought in fresh or powdered form. If you also suspend a toy, like a feather or elastic toy from a part of the post to encourage interest and play.
Discouraging the use of the previous area
If you cat is persistently refusing to use the beautiful new post you have built and would prefer to use the door-frame or furniture, there are a number of things you can do. To discourage use of a small area like a doorframe, you can use double-sided tape, or even use masking tape and a plastic bag to cover the area. Tin foil is also great or a piece of Perspex over the area, as smooth or crinkly surfaces are much less fun to scratch on. The key is to temporarily put something in place to break the habit, but provide an appropriate outlet for the behaviour. Avoid the use of punishment like water sprays, as this teaches fear and is very hard to do remotely without your cat seeing that it is you doing the spraying. Teaching your cat to be scared of you and punishing an essentially natural behaviour only intermittently (just when you see the behaviour happening) doesn’t really help the situation and if your cat is scratching due to low level anxiety, you will add to their discomfort. If possible, place the new post directly in front of the area your cat is using.
Feliway is a cat pheromone that can be used as a spray or plugged into a power point to use as a room diffuser. It is undetectable to humans, but to cats smells like the facial pheromone that they use to mark surfaces. To a cat, a room that smells like them is reassuring and comforting. My own cat was scratching all the door-frames upstairs where the bedrooms are and immediately on plugging in the Feliway, stopped entirely, so I can vouch for its efficacy. The spray should be applied daily on areas your cat urine or scratch-marks and is also useful to spray into a cat carrier before a trip to the Vet.
With a few little tricks and a scratching post your cat likes, it is possible to deter your cat from shredding your favourite couch and renovating your house with those razor-sharp claws. Small scratches can be removed from wood with sandpaper and furniture polish, so that hopefully you can get your rental bond back. Unfortunately I think it could be all too late for our door-frames. I just wish I had discovered the Feliway sooner!
With 7 years of small animal practice, Dr. Eloise Bright came to Love That Pet with as animal lover and advocate for all animals from baby birds to stray kittens. With two sons in tow and hubby, Eloise mainly practices in Sydney, Australia. Chat with her and the dog, Duster and cat, Jimmy on Google+.