How to Control Scratching Behaviour

Pet Tales
by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

Scratching is normal cat behaviour, serving to sharpen and groom the front claws and leave markers of the cat's presence. They are not trying to modify the look of your favourite sofa because they prefer the tattered, shredded, distressed look in furniture. They are not destroying the living room drapes in a vindictive action against their owner. No, they are just doing what cats do and have always done.

To live in harmony with a cat, though, it will likely be necessary, to achieve some sort of understanding and accord with the cat and control the potentially destructive consequences of scratching behaviour. Proper training to scratch on appropriate surfaces, combined with nail care and providing acceptable scratching posts may be able to manage the issue.

All scratching posts are not considered equal in the eyes of a cat. Many cats prefer vertical posts; some prefer horizontal ones. Vertical scratching posts must be sturdy and preferably tall enough for the cat to have a good stretch. Scratching materials preferred by most cats are wood, sisal rope and rough fabric. Try to locate the scratching posts near areas favoured by cats such as windows or sleeping areas since cats often stretch and scratch upon awakening from their cat naps.

You should try to start training your new kitten or cat to use scratching posts when first they are introduced to your home, if this is to be your choice to limit problems caused by scratching. Cats return to favourite or chosen scratching sites, so motivate them to use the scratching posts you select and avoid letting them use the furniture. This can be done by enticing your cat to the post when it wakens from rest. Rubbing cat nip on the post, holding treats or toys partway up the post to encourage stretching and scratching may be helpful in the training. You can also secure an appealing toy, such as feathers, at the top of the post. Rewards can be given at each step - as the cat approaches the post, touches it and finally scratches it.

If your cat already scratches an undesirable area, remember yelling at it or punishing it, is not very effective in correcting the problem behaviour. It may be necessary to try other types of scratching posts or other coverings on the post. Applying double-sided sticky tape on the inappropriate scratching locations and rewarding the use of the post, may be beneficial. If necessary, for awhile, the cat may be confined to an area where the scratching post is the only available scratching outlet. This establishes the use of the scratching post and prevents inadvertent reinforcement for scratching off-limit household items.

Trim the tips of a cat's nails every one to two weeks. Hopefully, if done correctly, this procedure will be accepted by most cats. Once again, nail trimming needs to be one of those things introduced in the routine handling of kittens.

Declawing cats remains controversial for some cat owners. However, it does stop furniture destruction and has been shown in studies by behaviour experts to cause no change in a cat's personality or behaviour. Cats will usually continue to stretch and scratch at favourite sites but the lack of nails means no damage or injury is done.

If you have any questions about scratching or any other problem behaviours with your cat, talk to your veterinarian.