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March 11, 2015

Cats: Destructive Scratching

The trick is to teach your cat what she can scratch - and what is off limits

  • iStockphoto

You probably don't agree with your cat's ideas for remodeling your living room. But your cat doesn't claw the couch or scrape the drapes because she's a bad kitty or to spite you for not feeding her at 3 a.m.

Cats scratch objects in their environment for many reasons: to remove the dead outer layer of their claws, to mark their territory by leaving both a visual mark and a scent (they have scent glands on their paws), and to stretch their bodies and flex their feet and claws.

Scratching is a normal, instinctive behavior, one that you don't want to discourage completely. Instead, the goal is to get your cat to scratch acceptable objects, like a scratching post, instead of the furniture, carpet or curtains.

Step 1:  Watch and learn

What do cats scratch? Most cats are attracted to anything with a nubby, coarse or textured surface, or something they can really sink their claws into.

When do they scratch? When they wake up from a nap, when they want to mark their territory or when they’re excited about something, like you coming home from work.

How do they scratch? Some cats like to stand up against a vertical surface; others get horizontal and stick their butts in the air for a good stretch.

Declawing isn't the solution

Step 2: Don't scratch here

Once you've figured out your cat's preferences,  you're halfway to the finish line

  • Cats are all about texture, so cover the off-limits spots with things your cat will find unappealing on her paws, like double-sided sticky tape, aluminum foil, sheets of sandpaper or a plastic carpet runner with the pointy side up.
  • Many cats don't like the odor of citrus or menthol. Try attaching cotton balls soaked in cologne or a muscle rub to the places you want her to leave alone.
  • You may have to keep these items in place until your cat is using the scratching posts consistently, which could take weeks or months. Then remove them one at a time.

Cats just want to have fun

There are many things that can satisfy your cat's need to scratch.

  • A sturdy, rope-covered upright post; a flat scratch pad of corrugated cardboard; the back side of a carpet square; even a small log with the bark still on (be sure it hasn't been treated with chemicals before bringing it inside)
  • A scratching object can be free-standing, lie on the floor or hang from a doorknob; experiment to find out what your cat prefers or, even better, provide a variety of scratching objects in different places and positions.
  • Rub a little catnip into the post or attach a toy to the top to make it even more attractive.
  • Praise your cat for using the post or any other object that is acceptable for her to scratch.

Step 3:  Location, location, location

Put the posts where your cat wants them—next to her sleeping spot for a quick stretch after a nap, or by the front door for a really intense session after she greets you.

Put a post on each level of the house so she doesn't have to go far to indulge.

Once your cat is regularly using her post, you can move it little by little to where you'd like it. But, really, why tempt fate? Better to leave it in her favorite spot so she leaves your favorite things alone.

Where it's at

Scratching posts and pads are available in all shapes, sizes and materials. If you're industrious and want a DIY alternative, you can find building plans online.

Stop kitty

Scolding your cat only works if you catch her scratching an off-limits object. If you correct her after the fact, she won't know what she’s done wrong and could learn to fear you.

  • Never yell at or hit your cat as punishment. She may start to avoid you altogether.
  • If you do catch your cat shredding a "naughty spot," interrupt her by making a loud noise (clap your hands, shake a can of pennies or pebbles, slap the wall), and redirect her scratching to one of the acceptable items. Do this consistently to teach her "sofa bad, post good."

Clipping claws

Cats who are sedentary may not wear down their claws through exercise, and their nails can become overgrown. Left untrimmed, claws can grow into your cat's paw pads, leading to infection, pain and difficulty walking and using the litter box. Check your cat's claws every couple of weeks to see if they need to be clipped. Then follow our directions for trimming them.

Dig deeper into the matter

Cat Answer Tool


Adapted from material originally developed by applied animal behaviorists at the Dumb Friends League, Denver, Colorado. All rights reserved.

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