Why do cats scratch?
Scratching is not only pleasurable, it is also necessary for cats as it helps shed old layers from their claws to expose new sharper ones. When cats are outside, they scratch trees and stretch while they are doing so. Scratching is just as enjoyable an activity for indoor cats, and as it conditions their claws, scratching is beneficial for them. In addition, when cats scratch they leave behind their scent in that area. This is another form of marking behavior that is very natural to a cat.
Indoor cats have no way to discriminate between surfaces that are acceptable to scratch, and those that humans consider off-limits for scratching. To discourage your cat from scratching carpets in the house, use a material other than carpet on the scratching post so as to not confuse her. One such material is sisal, a renewable resource which is quite reasonably priced. Cats usually love its texture and can really sink their claws into it like they would with tree bark.
Sisal posts can be made at home by covering any wooden structure with sisal using a staple gun or hot glue gun. Some people even bring a real tree bark home for their cats to scratch. Another cat favorite is a piece of plywood covered with burlap. The shredded burlap can easily be replaced inexpensively.
How to stop a cat from scratching where she is not supposed to?
First and foremost, provide your cat with a sturdy scratching post that is made of a different surface than your flooring or upholstery so as not to confuse her. If her scratching post is made of carpeting that is similar to the one on the floor, it stands to reason that she will treat them as one and the same, that is, scratch both as the spirit moves her. The post should be covered with material that she can sink her claws into but remove without getting snagged. Sisal, corrugated cardboard, and just plain wood bark are good options.
Next, make sure she has access to more than one post as well as more than one type of post. Ideally, scratching posts should be tall enough for your cat to get a good stretch in her muscles. Since cats love climbing trees and being up high, at least one tall scratching post with ledges is a good idea.
If you get a tall tree, make sure it is sturdy and not likely to lose its balance. A lot of posts are covered with carpet; new carpets emit formaldehyde so if it is not possible to avoid such material, place it in a well-ventilated area until the smell dissipates.
[Evita's LilMuffe on homemade a-frame climbing tree]
Evita's LilMuffe on homemade a-frame climbing tree
Posts should be strategically located throughout the house close to the areas where she spends the bulk of her waking hours.
Some cats are horizontal scratchers while others prefer vertical posts. Yet others like the angled ones best.
Encourage your cat to use the posts provided for her by spraying a catnip spray or lavender (calming) hydrosol on them. You can also crush loose dried catnip between your fingers and apply these all over the post. This will attract your cat to the posts. When you see her scratching her post, praise her using her name. Cats respond very well to positive reinforcement, and treats certainly don't hurt.
On the flip side, do not scold her when she scratches other areas and do not use her name in association with any undesired behavior. Some cats are deterred by squirt guns or when sprayed with plain water. Others seem to be oblivious to this and become quite adept at scratching when their people are not looking.
The key is to have your cat make a direct connection between the action and its consequence because when you are not home to use a squirt gun, your cat will continue with this behavior. While some people consider water sprays and squirt guns cruel, it is preferable to declawing or finding a new home for a cat. If your cat responds without getting stressed out, squirt guns might be fine in certain situations.
If your cat keeps going back to a particular place in the house to scratch, such as a section of carpeting, first clean it and the carpet backing thoroughly with an enzyme cleaner. Then once the area is completely dry, cover it with a piece of plastic or foil. When access to the area being scratched is blocked, cats look elsewhere so use this opportunity to redirect her attention to her scratchers/scratching posts.
For vertical scratchers
In the case of cats who prefer to scratch vertical surfaces, the most likely part of your furniture to be scratched is the flat tall edge. If your cat starts to scratch furniture, cover it right away with a piece of foil taped with some double-sided tape. Alternatively, the preferred scratching area can be covered with plastic wrap or contact paper gummy side up, and secured with double-sided sticky tape to keep it in place.
The idea is for her to be repelled by the feeling of this material on her paws, and break the scratching behavior cycle. If you do not do this, the scent deposited by her paws will make her keep going back to the area. Keep the surface covered until your cat is regularly scratching her post or horizontal scratching pad.
I've found Feliway to be very effective as a scratching deterrent because the calming facial pheromones are comforting to cats. Those are not areas they then want to scratch, and they instead seek other spots.
[ Lee's PussCat - heaven on a scratching tree]
Lee's PussCat - heaven on a scratching tree
There are some ways to lessen the damage if your cat requires more persuasion than most in the scratching department. The easiest option is to trim their claws at least twice a month. This will cut down on scratching tremendously, and can be part of your bi-weekly "spaw" routine for your cats.
If trimming claws does not deter your cat as much you would like, you can apply a commercially-available product e.g. Soft Paws over the claws. This type of product consists of soft blunt plastic sheaths that are simply glued onto your cats' nails. As your cat's nails grow, the sheaths fall off, and will need to be replaced. Particularly for kittens, these can be useful during the "training" stage.
Flower essences (FE) can be very effective in encouraging positive behavior. There is no one remedy that addresses the issue of scratching. In each cats' case, one would need to figure out why s/he's scratching because if it's out of boredom, that would call for a different FE than if the cat's behavior is all about seeking attention.
Last but not least, and I know this is hard, focus on positive outcomes. In other words, use not just positive reinforcement, but also visualization. In your mind think about the desired behavior so think about your cat scratching where she should, and communicate to her (either verbally or not) how you would be so happy if she'd use the scratcher. But don't think how unhappy you'll be if she scratches the carpet/furniture.
Good luck, and thank you for not declawing your cat.
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- Last Updated: 17 November 2013