This post is written by guest author, Allison Hunter-Frederick, from Allison Helps Cats LLC.
All Pet Voices may receive commissions from affiliate links included in this article.
This post is part one of a three part series:
- Part 1: Why Do Cats Need to Climb?
- Part 2: Why Do Cats Need to Scratch?
- Part 3: Why Do Cats Need to Hide? (stay tuned)
SCRATCHING IS INSTINCTUAL
Scratching is an instinctual way for cats to sharpen their claws and to maintain the system that allows claw extension and withdrawal. The act of scratching also removes the dead outer layer of their claws and exposes the healthy new growth underneath.
In the wild, claws were essential tools for cats. Cats are digitigrade, which means they walk on their toes. Walking on their toes allows them to move quietly and quickly, which allows them both to sneak up on prey and to escape predators. Their claws also help provide balance when they walk and jump.
In addition, because claws come out of the front of their toes and are curled, claws serve as tools for cats to catch, hold, and rip open prey. Although indoor cats no longer need to hunt prey, they still use their claws in daily activities such as play.
A second way scratching is instinctual is that it serves as a way for cats to mark their territory, both in a visual and an olfactory way. The visual mark can be seen at a distance and warns approaching cats that they’re entering another cat’s domain. The olfactory mark occurs because of the scent glands in a cat’s paw pads that are released when a cat scratches a surface. Any approaching cat who comes close enough to the scratched object will be able to get valuable information about the cat who did the scratching.
Life and Cats blogger, Emelia Evans, writes that cat owners might notice that their cats are often scratching the furniture they use the most. She explains that cats do this to mark areas with their scent glands and to make the house their home.
SCRATCHING IS HEALTHY
Scratching has health benefits for cats too. For example, it allows them to get a good stretch, which is especially useful after periods of inactivity. According to anatomy researcher Andrew Cuff in an interview with Live Science, the benefits of stretching for cats are similar to those for people.
When cats are relaxed their blood pressure drops, but stretching can help to reverse that. As they stretch, their muscles are activated and their blood pressure is raised, which increases the amount of blood flowing to the muscles and the brain. As the muscles start moving, toxins and waste byproducts that build up during periods of inactivity are flushed out. In addition, the increased blood flow helps wake cats up and make them more alert, which readies them for activity.
A second health benefit of scratching for cats is that it can serve as an emotional release. When cats are anxious or frustrated, or even when they’re happy or excited, digging their claws into the right kind of fiber allows them to release some of their built-up emotions.
Cats will scratch in reaction to being yelled at by their owners, or in reaction to seeing an unwelcome animal in their yard. They’ll also scratch in response to visitors or mealtime. Scratching can help keep cats emotionally healthy.
If scratching is a natural and necessary cat behavior, how can owners provide cats with an outlet while protecting their home? Although you can’t train cats not to scratch, you can redirect them to scratch appropriate objects.
The most obvious acceptable scratching outlet is a scratching post. Scratching posts come in different orientations, textures, and sizes, and they can be placed in a variety of locations. All these variables may impact whether they’re used or ignored.
For this reason, experts say that more is better when it comes to scratching options: the more variety of scratching posts you have, the more likely your cat is to like at least one of them. The Humane Society of the United States suggests that cat owners put posts where their cats want them such as next to their favorite eating and sleeping spots so cats “don’t have to go far to indulge themselves.”
The ideal scratching post is a sturdy vertical post made of sisal that is taller than a cat’s body length and which allows the cat to fully stretch and give a good scratch. Other popular scratchers on the market include horizontal scratchers, wall scratchers, toys with scratchers built into them, and scratchers that are part of a cat tree. When it comes to texture, some cats prefer different materials such as corrugated cardboard, carpet, cloth, or wood.
Although the cost and size of cat trees may make them prohibitive, they’re worth mentioning here not only because they meet a scratching need but also because research shows that cats enjoy them.
On her blog Companion Animal Psychology, Zazie Todd reported that cat trees with one or more levels were associated with low levels of problem scratching. She noted, however, that the use of a cat tree depended on age. Cats nine years or younger preferred a cat tree, but older cats wanted a simple scratching post.
What are other ways to minimize damage to your home from cat scratching? There are four more strategies you can try: trimming your cat’s claws, applying claw or nail caps, removing sources of stress from your home, and using reinforcers to encourage appropriate scratching.
Trim your cat’s claws: Make trimming your cat’s claws a normal part of your cat’s grooming routine in the same way nail trimming is part of your own grooming routine. For a how-to guide, check out my other article: Trimming a Cat’s Claws.
Alternatively, use claw or nail caps: They’re made of rubber and have rounded tips, so that when your cat does scratch something inappropriate, no damage is done. These are applied to your cat’s claws much like fake nails are applied to your fingernails. The caps are shed automatically as the claw grows so you will have to replace them every three to four weeks.
Alleviate Stress: Increased scratching behavior may be a sign of stress, such as relocating to a new place or adding an addition to the family. Feline pheromone spray is always a plausible option. It mimics the feline facial pheromone that makes cats feel calmer.
A threat or restriction to a cat’s resources can also cause stress. If the threat is an outdoor cat, you can block your cat’s view of that cat, install outside motion detectors to deter animals including other cats, increase your cat’s environmental enrichment, clean up your cat’s urine with an enzyme cleaner and/or use feline pheromone spray.
Use Reinforcers: According to the results of a study that Todd summarized, people who rewarded their cat for using the scratching post were significantly less likely to have a problem with inappropriate scratching. Rewards used in the study included food, petting, and praise.
If you’re unable to reduce your cat’s unwanted scratching behavior, consult your veterinarian or a cat behavior consultant before taking the drastic step of having your cat declawed. Dr. Jennifer Hiebner, a veterinarian at Pitts Veterinarian Hospital, explains that “When you declaw a cat, you remove the first bone in every toe – the equivalent of amputating your fingers at the first joint. If the whole bone is not removed, they can regrow under the skin or penetrate through the pads causing deformities and pain. This also opens the cat to neurological pain and increases risk of arthritis because it changes their natural weight-bearing stance.”
Cats need time to learn household etiquette. With ample scratching posts and proper training, most cats will learn what they should and shouldn’t scratch.
About the Author: Allison Hunter-Frederick is a cat behavior consultant, cat therapy handler, and pet education blogger. Her articles have been published in local and national publications, as well as on her blog, Lincoln Pet Culture. Through her business, Allison Helps Cats LLC, she uses a research-based, positive reinforcement teaching approach to help cat owners improve their relationships with their cats all from the comfort of their home.