As first-time cat owners, we listened in horror as our kitten’s claws ripped into the wingback chair that was once my husband’s grandfather’s (don’t worry, the plan has always been to reupholster it!). Like other cat owners, we rushed out for scratching posts. And, like other cat owners, we watched as our kitten played with the packaging and completely ignored the posts. Destructive scratching wasn’t really his thing, so he moved on with some guidance. If you have a destructive scratching problem this article should help you understand the underlying cause and give you some ideas on how to fix it.
The Nature of Scratching
Cats naturally scratch as a way to keep their claws sharp and at a healthy length. Scratching is also good for stretching and muscle strength and to leave a territorial scent marker (cats have scent glands in their paws).
Cats in a happy, low-stress environment will usually have one or two preferred scratching sites that they’ll regularly come back to. Often times these sites will be in prominent places that they frequent, like near their favorite resting spot or by a window they look out from. These scratching sites mark their territory both visually and with a scent signal, creating a comforting feeling that this area is undeniably your cat’s home.
When your cat is stressed because of a conflict with another cat or competition for resources (food, resting spots, affection) they might use scratching as a way to combat the offending cat. To do this, cats will scratch prominent objects with social significance all over their territory, which becomes a problem when those things are your couch, chairs, and walls! Some people, likely with cats competing for affection, have reported their cats using their legs as scratching posts! For some cats, unfamiliar odors or major changes to a room (like new furniture) can cause enough anxiety to send them on a scratching crusade.
What You Can Do About It
Punishing your cat won’t solve the problem. They’ll just scratch when you aren’t around. Instead, do your best to pinpoint the underlying reason for this territorial behavior. If you’ve always had multiple cats and the destructive scratching is new, try to figure out what changed.
Did you buy a new bed or other resting place they might be fighting over? Is a new toy causing friction? If one cat is gaining weight, you might have a food hoarding situation. Whatever the reason, do your best to remedy the situation and see if the scratching stops.
If you only have one cat, you might have your work cut out for you. If you recently moved or did some major renovations, try a pheromone spray to lower their stress level. Erect comfortable resting perches (bonus if they have scratching posts) as soon as possible. Use pheromone or catnip sprays to entice them to spend time in their new area.
Watch for neighborhood cats that might be visually intimidating your cat through the window (more on visual intimidation soon!). Do your best to visually block them out using potted plants, lattice, or motion activated sprinklers (lol!).
Adding to the family can trigger stress in cats. Check out this post for what you can do if a new baby is the reason your cat is acting out. Talk to your vet about medical reasons your cat might be feeling anxious if you can’t spot an obvious problem.
If They Don’t Stop
If scratching continues even after you’ve restored peace to the kingdom, your cat may have made a habit of scratching at inappropriate objects. Now it’s time to re-habituate. Here are some easy steps you can take to make a habit of scratching only appropriate objects.
- Take a look at the kinds of surfaces your cat prefers to scratch and try to find appropriate scratching posts that closely resemble those surfaces. Buy multiple kinds if your cat enjoys variety.
- Be sure the posts you buy are tall enough for your cat to fully extend and stable enough that they’ll do so confidently. We had a sisal post that Trout loved to scratch when it was on the floor but if we hung it from a door knob (its intended use), it would swing and rock when he tried to use it.
- Mark the appropriate post with your cat’s scent. You can do this by gently pressing their paws against the post.
- Place the scratching posts in front of the furniture your cat targeted. If this doesn’t stop them, try moving the furniture out of the room entirely while they learn to use the post instead. This sounds like a major pain, but what’s worse, moving things around for a little while or your cat destroying your wingback chair? Depends on the chair I suppose!
- Alternatively, you can place posts in appealing places, like near their favorite window or resting place.
- You can gradually move a scratching post to a permanent location as they become accustomed to it.
- When you can’t be around to deter inappropriate scratching try confining your cat away from problem areas. Confinement to a room where they are given appropriate toys and scratching posts can help to re-habituate their scratching behavior. Always be sure that food, water, and a litter pan are available when your cat is confined.
- Feliway is an effective deterrent when sprayed daily on the scratched item.
- Regular nail trimmings are recommended to limit the desire to sharpen claws. I found that this works best for Trout. Soft nail covers are another way to limit the damage of scratching. They are relatively easy to apply and last about as long as a manicure (around 2 weeks).
Despite the practice of declawing and tendonectomy being illegal in many countries and widely considered inhumane, the U.S. still allows it. Veterinarians who perform these procedures feel that it’s in the best interest of the cat when re-habituation efforts have failed and relinquishment is the owner’s only other option.
Declawing is the total removal of the end of each digit at the knuckle. It would be like going to the doctor’s office and waking up without fingertips.
Tendonectomy, which is widely losing favor, is when they cut the tendon that controls claw extension. The claws will still grow which can lead to overgrowth since they can’t extend them to scratch, which is still an important part of claw maintenance (with or without the destruction). Tendonectomy is also considered very painful for cats on a long-term basis.
Consider the Golden Rule here… Would you want to wake up an amputee or have your hand immobilized? I wouldn’t.
Check out my post on the status of declawing in the U.S.!
Prevention is Always the Best Medicine
If you bring home a kitten, be sure to teach them early on what is acceptable and consistently encourage the behavior. If you adopt an adult cat, encourage and reinforce appropriate scratching behaviors with toys, treats, and affection. Use confinement when necessary until your cat makes appropriate scratching a habit.