Scratching Behavior in Cats


Furniture Scratching

Scratching objects to mark them is a normal cat behavior. This behavior appears to help in claw sharpening and to provide some stretching exercise for the cat. Outside cats tend to scratch wood objects. Some cats prefer a vertical surface and some a horizontal surface. Noticing which your cat prefers can help in dealing with problem scratching. Cats are also picky about the texture of the objects they scratch. Some become very fixated with one particular type of fabric and will not scratch any other surface texture. This can also be important in retraining them. Cats like to pick a prominent spot for their scratching, since they are partially doing this to announce their presence to the world. Putting their scratching post away in the corner of a seldom used room may not fulfill that need. It does no good to try to keep a cat from scratching furniture if an acceptable substitute is not provided. Most cats prefer a longitudinal texture (like the stands on a sisal scratching post which run in one direction, mostly). The scratching post should be at least 1 foot tall ,or long, depending on its orientation. Many cats like a bare, soft wood as a scratching post if fabric ones are not attractive to them. The sturdier the construction, the more likely it is that the cat will like to use the scratching post. If it can be placed in a prominent site that helps a lot, too. If the middle of the living room is not acceptable, putting the scratching post in a prominent site in another room might work ---- but away in the basement probably won't. Paying attention to providing an adequate site for your cat to scratch helps a great deal. When they still won't cooperate and leave your favorite furniture alone, it is necessary to discourage the behavior.

If possible, it is best to remove the object the cat likes to scratch while attempting to change the behavior. If removing the object is not possible, it can be helpful to cover it with plastic, which most cats avoid. Consistently punishing the cat whenever it is seen scratching can be helpful. Spray from a squirt gun is a good deterrent for most cats. Then take the cat to the scratching post and even run its feet up and down the post in a scratching motion (gently!). When you leave the house, make sure the cat is not allowed access to the room with an object it likes to scratch, if possible. Most cats will learn to use a scratching post if you are persistent in attempts to alter the behavior.

If your cat will not stop destructive scratching behavior, declawing is an option that may provide some peace in your household. In studies of this behavior, worries over behavioral changes or long term complications have been unsubstantiated. Most owners feel that no behavioral change occurs after declawing. While this should not be the first choice, it is an option. Declawing can be the difference between being able to have a good relationship with your cat or deciding to consider much less acceptable alternatives such as euthansia or abandoning your pet. When that level of frustration is reached everyone is better off with the decision to declaw. Alternatives are clipping the claws regularly so they are too dull to cause much damage and using Soft-Paws or beads glued to the claws to prevent damage from them.

Mike Richards, DVM

Scratching Post Dilemma

Q: I can't find a suitable scratching post anywhere. I have one that's perfect, but I bought it in the Czech Republic and can't find another one here in the US. It needs to be at least 30 inches tall (so they can stretch) and sisal. I don't want one of those condo things with all the gizmos -- they love their scratching post, but I need two more for various areas in the house. Any suggestions? I've tried all the online pet stores I can find. The tallest I've found is 20 inches, which is just too short. They ignore the hanging ones.

Thank you for your help!

Kind regards, Helena

A: Helena-

Cats are attracted to particular surfaces for exercising their claws and if your cats prefer a texture like sisal, you might be able to make a scratching post using thick rope of that texture attached to a pedestal or surface that meets the rest of the need (length). One of my cats really likes an old piece of hawser that a tugboat captain gave me. She just grabs one end and works her way to the other end. I only make this suggestion because I don't know what else to suggest, since you have already searched the places I can think of to search.

Mike Richards, DVM 2/20/2000

Scratching Wallpaper

Q: Dear Dr. Mike...

I have a six month old spayed female cat who has a habit of clawing up the wallpaper on the wall. She tears at it and peels it off too. I don't understand why she is doing this since she actively uses her scratching post every day. Before I spend time and money replacing the wall paper she's shredded what can I do to stop my cat from scratching? Any suggestions? Thank you

A: It is hard to change behaviors like scratching at walls, especially when there is a reward like being able to peel off pieces of the wallpaper. If this is only occurring in one room and you are able to block off that room for a while, it might diminish your cat's interest in clawing there. Doing something that discourages approaching that particular wall can work if that is possible. Cats do not like to walk stand and walk on plastic many times. Putting down a plastic sheet along that wall might discourage your cat. If this behavior involves several walls in your house the best option may be to consider declawing your cat. This procedure is painful for a cat for the first few days to a week after surgery. It does take away one of their defense mechanisms and that can be a significant consideration in an indoor/outdoor cat. On the other hand, it makes the home environment so much more peaceful for everyone that I have to think that it benefits most cats more than it harms them. Especially when a cat owner is considering taking the cat to an animal shelter or euthanasia as an option if destructive behaviors can not be discouraged by other means.

If you have an animal behaviorist practicing in your area, they can help with many difficult situations involving behaviors that are normal but have a detrimental effect on the pet owner/pet relationship. Your vet may be able to refer you to a good behaviorist.

Mike Richards, DVM


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...