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cat behaviour >>SCRATCHING FURNITURE/OBJECTS

Scratching is a natural behaviour in cats. Claws and scratching serve several functions as follows:

  • marking to leave both a visual mark and a scent
  • sharpening claws and removing loose or dead nail caps
  • protection
  • stretching muscles
  • play
  • hunting

So while scratching is a natural behaviour, it may be unacceptable in your home due to the destruction of items. When this problem arises, many owners don’t realize that there are alternatives to declawing their cat. These behaviours can be managed without surgical intervention. To me, surgery should be a last resort when all else fails.

Here is a link to a wonderful video that really shows how to manage your cat's scratching well. There is a video for each section and it takes a bit of time. This video is from Cornell University:

http://partnersah.vet.cornell.edu/scratching/

What you should know about declaw surgery:

  • This is a permanent amputation of the claw and last bone of the foot.
  • The cats can have significant pain on recovery although our ability to manage this pain and new equipment (laser for example) has improved the process greatly.
  • When done with a tourniquet around the leg to control bleeding, there is the risk of permanent nerve damage and lameness.
  • Although the surgical anesthetic risk is low in a young healthy cat there is always some risk.
  • The complication rate after surgery is higher than most other surgical procedures and may create the need for expensive care, ongoing hospitalization, medications, etc.
  • Cats older than 1 year, in my experience, seem to recovery more slowly and have more complications than younger cats.

How can scratching be managed:

So, what can you do to deal with a scratching cat. An important thing to do at the start of this process is to teach the cat to allow nail trimming. See the article on ‘Trimming Your Pet’s Nails’. Also, consider products like Soft Paws (your vet can order them, click here to see example: http://www.softpaws.com/ ). These are like a rubber nail cap that is glued to the cat’s foot every few weeks. Or, you could consider having your vet or groomer trim the cat(s)’ nails once/week if you can’t do it yourself. Short, well trimmed and rounded nails can’t do much damage and yet the cat can still do the motions of scratching to satisfy his/her natural needs and behaviours.

Physical punishment should not be used. It is only effective if used 100% of the time and doesn’t teach the cat where the appropriate scratching areas are. The cat will learn to fear you and not to scratch when you are nearby. Further, punishment will make the cat fearful of you and less likely to be friendly and interactive with you. This will make rewarding good behaviours difficult. Punishment can also lead to other serious behaviour problems such as hiding, urinating outside the box, and even aggression.

Watch your cat and look for claw marks and make a list of what areas the cat is scratching and what type of material the cat is scratching. Also measure how high the cat is scratching on vertical surfaces. Also, note whether the cat likes to scratch on vertical or horizontal surfaces. Some cats scratch wood surfaces, some scratch carpet, some scratch soft furniture and most will stretch quite high. This will give you an idea of what materials the cat should have on its scratching posts and how tall or long the posts must be. For example if we assess the picture at the beginning of the article I would conclude that if this is the only place this cat is scratching:

  • that the cat likes to be stretched out and will need a tall scratching post
  • that a vertical post would be better than a post on the floor
  • that the substrate preference is likely wood

The next step is to block access to all areas where cats are scratching.  So for the example picture again, closing this door and blocking access to the bottom of this door might work.  Ways to block access might include some or all of the following:

  • Using a scratching post to block an area. 
  • Aversives at the the base of the area where the cat would stand to scratch.  Aversives can include any or all of the following:
    • Plastic door mats that have little protrusions for grip or getting dirt off.  These can be tacked down with duct tape or other products that hopefully won’t hurt your floors or carpets yet the cat won’t like walking on them.
    • Double sided sticky tape.
    • An old baking sheet with marbles in it.
    • A pan of water.
    • Citrus sprays sometimes work as a deterrent and these can be sprayed at the base or possibly onto areas where the cat scratches (note, read labels and test areas that can be seen if you are unsure whether the product will damage materials).
    • Although you can get movement activated sound devices that will startle the cat, I’d consider these a last resort as they may cause the pet to be fearful.
    • There is a commercial product called scat pads that deter cats without harming them (although it will be unpleasant). Again, I’d try other methods first.

After this is done, you now need to have appropriate scratching posts. There are lots of commercial products you can buy but if these are too expensive you can make inexpensive scratching posts out of cardboard, wood (untreated natural wood), logs (dry them in a garage or shop for a while), sisal rope and boards or poles, carpet ends around boards etc. A trip to a pet store can also give you ideas that you can go home and make. Be careful that there are no nails, sharp ends or loose strings that the pet could harm himself/herself with. The following link leads you to a site that has many different ideas and even building plans.
http://amby.com/cat_site/declaw.html#build-it

You will note that many scratching posts are incorporated right into cat perches and trees as well. So, using the materials that your cat prefers, you can buy or make appropriate scratching posts. I would suggest having at least 2-4 in the house. If you have more than 1 or 2 cats, more is better.

Next, you will need to encourage your cat to use the scratching post. Try the following:

  • If your cat likes cat nip, you may be able to attach cat nip to the scratching post.
  • Also, reward your cat with a small treat (see Training Treats Article) any time your pet is near the post and especially when your cat is using the post.
  • A clicker is a great tool to train your cat to use a post. Basically every time the cat is on or near the scratching post, you click and throw a treat. After the cat associates being near the post to get a reward you wait until the cat puts a paw on it. This link gives information on clicker training cats and equipment and books: http://www.clickertraining.com/cattraining
  • Use toys to encourage the cat to play near the post (see Fun Things to Do with Your Cat Article and the video below).
  • Using a cloth wipe down your cat(s) especially around the face and then wipe this on the post to scent mark it and encourage your cat to explore the post. If you have multiple cats, wipe down the friendliest cat that gets along with everyone and use his/her scent to mark the post.
  • Leave small treats and toys in, on and around the post to encourage the cat to go to this area.

Here’s a video of a person encouraging a cat to use a perch. The same technique can be used to get the cat to put his/her paws on a scratching post.

Give this a few weeks and try to be consistent. If the cat continues to get at old scratching areas, consider what else you can do to make that area less pleasant for the cat or try other methods of blocking the cat.

If the problem is so distressing that you cannot live with it other options include:

  • Contact me or a veterinary behaviourist in your area and book a referral consult.
  • Confine the pet to a comfortable area where there is no furniture or objects that are valuable to you. Insure the pet has perches, windows, scratching posts, a litter box or two in quiet areas, hiding spots, and a feeding station. Play and interact with the cat on a daily basis.
  • Consider rehoming the cat.
  • Consider surrendering to a humane society.
    I hope this information is helpful. Please contact me if you have questions or comments. Thanks for your interest.

Visit the following website for more about declawing, alternatives, and scratching posts: