Gayle Nastasi, animal consultant and author
“How do I get my cat to stop scratching?” is a question I have heard quite a few times over the years. My answer? “You don’t.”
That’s not a fatalistic outlook speaking. You don’t get a cat to stop scratching, because scratching is absolutely essential for a cat’s mental and physical health.
Scratching exercises all major muscle groups in the cat’s body, as well as many fine muscles of the paws, legs, shoulders, neck and back. It clears old, dead sheath tissue off of the claws, helping them to remain healthy and clean. It releases energy, diffusing that which might be otherwise channeled to more disruptive activities. It is a great stress reducer, both because of the exercise, and the fact that cats use scratching to claim ownership of their home and belongings. There are scent glands in a cat’s paws which, like the glands in their cheeks and the base of the tail that mark with scent when a cat rubs, place the cat’s own scent on their favorite items. A cat who feels like he owns his space is a content, secure cat.
What a cat-parent must do to save their home and furniture is not prevent the cat from scratching, but help him to know what surfaces are acceptable.
Providing your cats with appropriate items to scratch will go a long way toward preserving your belongings. The wide variety of scratching products on the market today means that every cat’s preference can be satisfied. Some cats like to reach upwards to scratch (couch and wall culprits). Some prefer to stretch out on the floor (carpet diggers). All cats, whether horizontal scratchers or vertical, like to be able to really stretch out.
Avoid scratching posts and boards that are too short for your cat to reach to their full length. Make sure, whatever type you choose, the post is solid and does not wobble too much. If a cat likes floor scratching, the “wobble factor” isn’t as much of a priority. Of all the scratching options we have provided Missie, the ones she likes best are those cheap cardboard scratching boards that just lie on the floor. Vertical scratchers, however, will often not use a post that wobbles. Some cats like to use broad surfaces, so might prefer a board to a post. There is much to choose from.
Observe your cat’s preferences. He will show you just how he likes to scratch. Shop around a bit, and find just the right type of scratching surface to suit his natural tendencies. Once you have the product in hand, it is not difficult at all to train a cat to use it. Play with his favorite toy near the scratcher. Try rubbing a little catnip into it. Don’t force his paws onto it–that is uncomfortable to a cat, and you don’t want to create a negative association. If it’s a vertical post, try laying it down at first till he has discovered it. Be sure not to hide it in an out of the way spot, but set it up in an area where your kitty already likes to hang out.
If the cat has already started using an inappropriate surface, set the new scratching post up near that area. When you see the cat start to scratch the wall or couch, move him gently to the new scratcher and encourage him: “Scratch! Good boy!” Give lots of praise and maybe even a treat when he complies. Be sure to make that his favorite interactive-play spot for a little while. You can encourage him to stretch out and scratch by drawing his favorite wand or fishing pole toy along the surface. If you enjoy clicker or lure-reward training with your cat, that can be a very quick way to get the “This is where you scratch” message across.
You may have to, for a short time, cover the old item or spot with something that will deter the cat, if he has already developed a habit. Double-sided tape works, or some cats will be deterred by aluminum foil. A temporary furniture throw can help if it’s a couch or chair arm that is his target. Since you are also actively encouraging and praising the cat for using the correct surface, your funny-looking deterrents won’t be there for long, don’t worry.
Whatever you do, don’t punish the cat or use a squirt bottle to deter him from scratching. All this does is make the cat wary of your presence so he won’t scratch while you’re watching. That will simply make the training process take much longer, and damage your relationship with your cat. Instead, your goal is to make his new scratching board or post the most inviting place to exercise those claws and muscles.
Every cat needs to scratch. By providing a variety of appropriate places for him to do so, you’ve created a happy cat, a happy owner, and a delightfully un-shredded home.
With thanks to my buddies Tristan and Kieran, Manx cats who live in the beautiful state of Kentucky with their mom, Dede.
If you have young animal lovers in your life (or are a young-at-heart animal lover yourself) who are looking for something to do this (rather odd and limited) summer, take a look at my Junior Handler Mysteries. Perhaps they would enjoy some fun reading.