Odds are, if you have ever had a cat, you know the noise of the “scritch-scratch” of kitty claws. (Our kitten’s name is “Kitty Claus!”) No one wants to have their grandmother’s rocker or the new carpet shredded by Kitty Kruger. What can pet owners do? Let’s talk about why cats perform this behavior in order to understand how to redirect it appropriately.
As a species, felines, have fascinating behavior patterns – more complex than many humans realize. For instance, most of us have more than one cat (just like Pringles – can’t have just one), but, in the wild, the only species of feline that lives in a group is the lion! Most felines favor the solitary lifestyle, and with a few breed exceptions, most domestic felines would prefer to be only “children”. So, when with other felines, they perform actions to communicate with each other. Since we enjoy more than one kitty at a time, we have to realize what behaviors they need to express, and allow them to do so in a manner that fits into our households. Scratching is one of these behaviors.
Most believe that scratching is performed to sharpen claws. A normal behavior for all feline species, scratching has important functions other than sharpening. Physically, the motion of scratching keeps the kitty able to extend and retract his claws comfortably. It stretches the muscles of the back and forelimbs and peels away the outer claw layer to expose the new layers growing on the inside.
Behaviorally, scratching serves a purpose. The action of reaching out and scratching shows other cats who is in charge of that particular space. Did you know that cats have scent glands in their feet? When they scratch, they are marking the area with that scent. That’s right, there are other types of marking beside urine. Cats that want to be dominant will scratch where they want to “leave their mark”, but cats who are anxious will scratch because of stress. Well-adjusted cats most often scratch on horizontal surfaces but cats that are stress marking will scratch on vertical surfaces (a fact that will be used in our deterrent methods). As you can see, scratching is much more than sharpening, and, in fact, many declawed cats still go through the scratching action to leave their mark and stretch their muscles.
What can you do?
1) Provide appropriate surfaces – I recommend horizontal scratch pads, but you should experiment with styles and textures of posts/pads. Offer your cat several choices – in several locations, including where they are already leaving their mark. A post next to the couch corner is better than a ripped couch.
2) Environmental enrichment – Like our friends at the zoo, cats need enrichment too. While kitties sleep a lot, they need opportunities to play and think, whether you are home or not. Some safe choices for unsupervised play include food puzzles, slow-release food balls, and peek-a-boo toy boxes. There are even scratching posts that slowly release your kitty’s daily meal when he scratches the post instead of your couch!
3) Pheromone sprays/diffusers – These are most helpful when the scratching is due to anxiety or attention seeking. Pheromones are the smell that cats release when they mark with their chin scent glands due to being happy. (Ever had one rub your leg or wall with his chin?) They allow the cat to feel that the area is now a relaxed happy place and they don’t feel the need to scratch. A plug-in diffuser or a spray applied directly to the vertical surfaces that are being scratched is recommended.
4) Nail caps – There are temporary soft nail covers that can be glued to your cat’s nails. These are not painful but only last approximately 4-6 weeks. They should do less damage scratching while wearing the covers.
Before you give into living a life with torn furniture, remember that your cat may be trying to tell you or the other kitties something by scratching. Take a look through a cat’s eyes, and see what you can do to help your friend feel even more comfortable. You might be able to save your couch and make her purr with delight.