Scratching is a normal behaviour for cats however cat owners will consider scratching an “unwanted” or “problem” behaviour if their cat causes damage to furniture, carpet or other items in the home.
If your cat has decided to turn your expensive couch into “Furniture-Shredding-Central”, your aim should be not to eliminate this important behaviour but to redirect it to a more appropriate location. This means you’ll need to do a little fact-finding first, to learn about your cat’s individual scratching preferences.
- does your cat prefer vertical surfaces or horizontal, or both?
- what types of materials does your cat prefer (wood, rope, fabric, carpet, cardboard)?
- where in the house does it scratch – cats often scratch at the boundaries of their territory such as near the front and back doors.
There are a few reasons why cats scratch items, related to communication and territory-marking, claw maintenance and stretching. Cats also scratch more if they are stressed or anxious, particularly in multi-cat households where they are competing for resources.
Cats should always be provided with appropriate scratching boards or posts from day 1 to minimise the chance of them using furniture or soft furnishings instead, but these might need to be moved to different locations or replaced with other items if they are not to your cat’s liking.
If you already have a problem with your furniture being reduced to shreds with tufts of filling poking out of cushions, here are some tips for salvaging the situation and redirecting your cat to their own purr-sonal scratching site:
- Provide a range of scratching options, with different surfaces, close to your cat’s preferred areas if possible (eg: a scratching post near the front door). Sometimes trial and error is required to ascertain your cat’s preferences.
- Scratching posts need to be sturdy enough to not fall over and also tall enough that your cat is able to stand up on its hind legs and stretch out fully. Kitten posts are quickly outgrown.
- If your cat is older (>7years) it might prefer a carpet mat rather than a vertical scratching post. Older cats tend to have some degree of arthritis and stretching vertically could be more difficult for them. Items giving less resistance might also be preferred due to muscle deterioration in older cats.
- Try positioning a scratching item near your cat’s sleeping area, because cats will often “scratch & stretch” after waking up.
- Position desired scratching items next to the unwanted areas your cat has been scratching, eg: place a post/ramp beside the shredded couch. Over time, this can be very gradually moved (a short distance at a time) to another location that suits you better.
- Prevent access to items/areas you don’t want shredded. For example: close doors to certain rooms when they are not in use, block the area with other furniture or cover the item with a plastic or fabric sheet that your cat does not want to scratch.
- Try adding catnip to the scratching items you want your cat to use.
- Give verbal praise or a small treat if you see your cat using the “correct” scratching areas.
- Play with your cat using the scratching post/ramp/mat. A mouse on a piece of string dangled on a scratching post can encourage your cat to see the post as acceptable scratching material.
- Clean scratched furniture thoroughly to remove the scent, because one method cats use for communication is to leave scent from glands on their paws. If they smell their own scent, it will remind them to scratch the same area again to “top-up” their smell.
- Address any inter-cat politics in the home to reduce levels of stress and anxiety. Ensure there are enough scratching areas (and other vital resources) for all cats according to their individual preferences to minimise territorial squabbles.
- Do not punish your cat (yelling, chasing, squirting with water etc.) It won’t understand what it’s done wrong, and punishment will increase anxiety and cause scratching and other unwanted behaviours to increase.
- Do not hold your cat and forcibly move their legs in a scratching motion on the items you wish them to use. Some people believe this lets your cat know they can scratch in this location, however it actually causes them further stress and they are likely to avoid the item you want them to use.
- Do not try to eliminate scratching behaviour altogether. It is a vital natural behaviour which should be redirected to a better spot rather than discouraged altogether.
- Don’t use deterrent sprays on furniture or engage in scaring tactics if your cat scratches the “wrong” area. These usually cause cats to find another location in secret which is equally unappealing to their owners.
- Try to not pay attention to your cat if you catch them scratching in the wrong place. Cats are pretty savvy when it comes to getting our attention, eg: “I’ll just scratch this chair to remind my human that it’s almost time for dinner”, or “If I shred this corner of carpet by the back door, my human will let me outside to the garden”.
Solving an unwanted behaviour such as scratching doesn’t happen immediately, so don’t expect a magical change overnight. However, over time cats can be trained and encouraged to utilise scratching items and areas which keep both them and us happy. Be patient and consistent and if trialling the above strategies is not working, ask your veterinary professional for further advice. This is a much better option than risking damage to the vital bond you have with your cat due to “irreconcilable differences” and your cat will appreciate the opportunity to perform important behaviours in a safe and acceptable way.
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