By Bay Vets
Scratching for a cat is important and more complex than you may realise. It is not merely kitty’s attempt to sharpen his claws to razor-sharp perfection or that the behaviour is based on a wilful attempt to get back at you or destroy his surroundings. In truth, scratching serves many purposes.
In addition to conditioning the claws, it’s a very effective way for the cat to stretch his back and shoulder muscles. Cats scratch with their front claws by dragging them downward, either on a horizontal or vertical surface – this action, referred to as stropping, loosens and removes the outer husk of the claw revealing a sharp new surface underneath.
Scratching is also used as a form of territorial communication or marking behaviour. Scent and sweat glands in between the pads of the feet mix to produce a unique smell. When claws are scraped down a surface the scent is deposited and the combination of the mark, discarded claw husks and the smell provides a strong visual and scent message to other cats.
Scratching is also used as an emotional release or displacement behaviour. Whether your cat is anxious, happy, excited or frustrated, he can release some of that built-up emotion by scratching. Think of the times you have seen your cat scratching on an object after a nap or when you have come home from work. You may even have noticed him scratching after an encounter with a companion cat. This emotional release through scratching is healthy for the cat.
Since scratching is so complex, and a vital part of feline life, you will need an effective training method to redirect this behaviour to an acceptable area. Begin the behaviour modification by ensuring you have a scratching post that has an appealing texture, is tall enough, is stable, and is placed in a good location:
Texture: The most appealing texture for cats is sisal; its rough texture makes it easy for cats to dig their claws in and get an effective scratch. Carpet-covered posts are too soft and cats get their claws caught in the carpet.
Location, Location, Location: To prevent a great scratching post from just gathering dust, keep it close to where your cat likes to spend time; otherwise he will look for the closest object that meets his needs. If you have more than one cat, you will need more than one scratching post (this applies to food and water bowls and most importantly litter trays). Although you can’t assign a post to a specific cat, if you place the posts in areas where the different cats tend to spend the most time, you may find they claim the posts on their own. For cats who like to scratch horizontally, there are inexpensive corrugated cardboard scratching pads available. If your cat has been scratching a piece of furniture, place the scratching post right next to it and cover the furniture with a sheet to make it less appealing.
Claw Trimming: It is important for cats from an early age to become accustomed to being handled. If a cat becomes used to claw trimming as a kitten then this will be well tolerated as an adult and can prevent damage to furniture. Claw trimming is however advised more often for cats that are kept exclusively indoors. Cats with access to the outside world will need those sharp claws for defence against attack and to climb their way out of trouble.
Artifical Feline Pheromones: Products such as Feliway® can also be beneficial, as they provide a sense of security and reassurance to the cat, making scratching for territorial reasons less likely to occur. If the scratching is widespread, you have a multi-cat household and/or you live in a densely cat-populated area, the scratching may be anxiety-related. Major building work within your home may trigger intensive scratching as your cat adjusts to its altered space; similarly new partners, children and babies all contribute to increased anxiety in our cats. Once the cause of the cat’s stress has been established it may be possible to decrease anxiety by providing additional resources within the home. In multi-cat households preventing competition between members of the group is an important factor to consider.
Remember: Your cat is not scratching just to be naughty. If the motivation is claw maintenance then you are punishing a natural behaviour (very confusing for the cat) or if your cat is scratching excessively due to anxiety and insecurity then punishment will add to its distress and probably make the situation worse.