It can be very frustrating to own a cat who scratches the furniture or other parts of the home. The key to tackling this behaviour is to firstly understand it. Our resident feline behaviour expert Sue Hartley BSc MSc CPsychol takes you through this common problem step by step giving you all the information you need to save your furniture!! Where do cats scratch? Cats scratch outdoors and indoors on various different surfaces, both vertical and horizontal. Chosen surfaces tend to be static and rigid so they don’t move around under the pressure exerted by the cat when scratching. When outdoors cats will typically favour wood and bark and so tend to scratch on trees, fences, gates, sheds, logs etc. Indoors cats will often scratch soft wood furniture, door frames, stairs, carpets and even wallpaper.
Why do cats scratch?
Scratching is a completely normal behaviour for a cat and something they’re highly motivated to do. The reasons why cats scratch are not fully understood although it’s likely that the behaviour serves a number of functions with two important ones being claw maintenance and communication.
Rather than using scratching to sharpen their claws, cats use scratching to remove the old blunted outer sheaths that surround their claws – revealing a new sharper surface beneath. Cats also use the action of scratching to stretch their front legs, back and shoulders and to exercise muscles and tendons, particularly in their paws, which helps maintain their ability to protract and retract their claws.
Some cats have limited or no access outdoors and so are likely to scratch inside for claw maintenance as they’re unable to do it outside. If appropriate outlets (e.g. scratching posts) for scratching aren’t provided, or the ones that are don’t allow the cat to perform natural scratching behaviour (e.g. posts that are too short), then scratching will be redirected on to furniture and other objects in the home (e.g. sofas).
Cats also scratch to communicate to provide information about themselves to other cats. When cats scratch the action secretes a sweat-like ‘personalised’ scent from between the pads on their paws. The combination of scent, physical scratch marks and old claw ‘husks’ left behind provide both olfactory and visual signals for other cats. Cats often scratch in places that other cats regularly visit or pass by. It’s thought this may be a way in which cats manage their social interactions.
Although cats are probably more sociable than most people think, they have evolved to be solitary hunters. As a result, domestic cats share the ‘risk averse’ nature of their wild counterparts and will avoid unnecessary confrontation (because of the potential for injury and subsequent negative impact on hunting and survival).
Scratching may serve to assist cats living in the same area to ‘timeshare’ by helping them avoid face to face meetings. Cats are also observed to sometimes scratch in the presence of other cats or their guardians. Although not well understood, it’s been proposed this may be a precursor to signal play, a sign of frustration or emotional conflict, or possibly as a display to other cats in the household. Cats in multi-cat households will often scratch at the bottom of stairs which is typically a place where the cats meet and pass each other. If a cat begins to scratch in areas of the home that have some strategic significance from a feline perspective, for example by doorways or windows (i.e. entry/exit points and places where the cat observes outside), this may be a sign that the cat is feeling anxious and insecure within the home environment.
The cat uses scratching to communicate to itself that the home is familiar, safe and secure and therefore an area in which the cat can relax and ‘let its fur down’. Anxiety could be due to changes in the cat’s environment, routine or relationships, the cat’s perception of threats from outside the home or tension between cats in the home. The behaviour of a cat can help distinguish between scratching for the purpose of communication and scratching for claw maintenance. A cat scratching with the intent of communicating will tend to sniff the area first and then use their ‘vomeronasal’ (or Jacobson’s) organ (located in the mouth behind the upper incisors) to investigate the area further. The use of this organ results in the ‘flehmen’ response – curling of the upper lip with the mouth slightly open to facilitate the transfer of pheromones and other scents in to the vomeronasal organ.
This response is thought to be seen only when cats are investigating the odours of other cats. When scratching to communicate, cats will typically engage in the behaviour more frequently and in a greater number of locations in comparison to scratching for the purpose of maintaining claws. One of the ways in which animals (and humans) learn is through ‘operant conditioning’. Animals learn from making associations between what they do and the outcomes of what they do. Behaviour that results in something desirable for the animal is reinforced and more likely to occur again in the future.
Cats that enjoy attention from their guardians can quickly learn that scratching the sofa or other furniture leads to an acknowledgement and attention from their guardians. An attention seeking cat may scratch a piece of furniture directly in front of their guardian and then possibly look towards the guardian for a response or run out of the room in anticipation of being chased. The behaviour is therefore reinforced by the guardian’s response to it and results in more scratching in the future.
What to do about scratching indoors?
Having considered why cats scratch, it’s important to cater for this behaviour as all cats (regardless of whether they have full or more limited access outside) have a need to scratch.
Avoid Aversive Responses
It is essential to avoid responding in an aversive way (e.g. shouting, throwing things) towards a cat when it scratches. This will be counter-productive and potentially detrimental to the cat’s welfare. Responding to the cat in this way for displaying a normal behaviour will be confusing for the cat at best and likely to create/exacerbate feelings of insecurity or anxiety at worst. This type of response also has the potential to encourage the cat to seek out more private places in which to scratch, or to only engage in the behaviour when their guardian is not at home. Rather than focusing on responding to what the cat should not be doing, it helps to focus on encouraging the cat to perform an appropriate alternative, i.e. to scratch on things provided for that purpose.
Providing Scratching Facilities
It is important for guardians to provide an appropriate outlet for scratching in the home in the form of scratching posts, pads or ‘trees’. These come in many different forms, sizes and shapes and can be bought commercially or made at home. If space in a home is at a premium, scratching panels can be fixed to walls at an appropriate height for the cat to stretch up to. All cats are individuals so it may be necessary to experiment to identify a particular cat’s preferences.
Looking at what a cat actually scratches and where will provide useful information about that individual’s preferences which can be mirrored in the scratching facilities provided. Cat guardians often report that their cat has a scratching post but doesn’t use it. This is probably because the post does not allow the cat to perform natural scratching behaviour or it’s not in an ideal location from the cat’s perspective. Scratching posts should ideally be:-
- Rigid so they provide resistance when the cat scratches on it.
- Stable so they don’t wobble or topple over when the cat scratches.
- High enough for a cat to scratch at full stretch.
- Covered with suitable material (e.g. sisal) ideally with a vertical thread and striped pattern.
- Designed with both horizontal and vertical scratching surfaces (e.g. base and post).
- Placed in different locations in the home (particularly important in multi-cat households).
- Located near resting areas used by the cat (cats like to stretch and scratch after waking).
- Located near strategically important locations (e.g. windows, entrances, exits).
After selecting appropriate posts and placing them in sensible locations, it’s ideal to allow the cat to investigate them in their own time, rather than physically placing the cat’s paws on the post.
Some dry cat treats or favoured toys around the post will probably encourage exploration. Making a few scratches down the surface of the scratching post with a wire brush might also help, for cats that respond to catnip, scattering some on the base of the post can be useful, or playing a game with the cat’s favourite toy. This is probably all that is required to encourage the cat to start using the post.
If introducing a kitten to a scratching post, an older cat in the household using the post whilst being observed by the kitten can facilitate learning. Scratching posts designed for kittens tend to be shorter than those intended for adult cats so posts will need to be updated as a cat matures. When a post has to be replaced, it’s advisable to stick to the same sort of post that a cat has become accustomed to as a different type may be rejected by the cat. It’s also helpful to attach a piece of the old post to a new one to attract the cat to it.
Resolving an Existing Scratching Problem
Trying to resolve an existing scratching problem isn’t always easy but a number of things can be done. Cleaning scratched areas with a biological washing powder solution can help to remove previously deposited scent which is likely to attract the cat back to scratch in the same spot. After cleaning, surgical spirit can be applied to the area and allowed to dry. Visible scratch marks on wood can be removed with fine sand paper and treated with furniture polish. Treating the surfaces with commercially available wood hardeners can also make surfaces tougher and less good for scratching.
Scratched areas should be made less attractive to the cat by making them inaccessible (if possible and practical), or by draping them with some form of cover or putting low tack double sided sticky tape on the scratched surfaces – this won’t harm the cat but should be sufficiently off putting. These measures should remain in place until the cat’s scratching of appropriate alternatives has become well established. Attempting to discourage a cat from scratching a particular area is unlikely to succeed if an appropriate alternative is not provided so place a scratching post as close as possible to the scratched areas to provide an alternative for the cat. Some of the strategies outlined earlier can be used to encourage the cat to use the new post.
Once the cat has got in to the habit of scratching the posts in their current locations on a regular basis, and the cat is not attempting to scratch previously damaged areas, the posts can be relocated to other places if necessary. However, this should be done very gradually over time (i.e. moved only a few millimetres a day). If scratching has become a way for a cat to get attention from its guardians, any undesirable scratching should be ignored (so it’s not inadvertently reinforced) and attention given to the cat when it scratches in acceptable places.
When this happens, it would be wise for guardians to consider the level of interaction they have with their cat in order to minimise the cat’s need to seek attention through scratching. In these situations, structured regular but short play sessions with the cat may help to provide the necessary stimulation and interaction that the cat is seeking. If a scratching problem may be related to anxiety or social tension between cats (in the area or in the same household), it’s advisable for guardians to seek advice from their vet who may refer them to an appropriately qualified behaviourist so the problem can be fully assessed and an appropriate plan put in place.
Beaver, B. V. (2003). Feline Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians. 2nd Edition. St. Louis: Saunders. Bowen, J. & Heath, S. (2005). Behaviour Problems in Small Animals: Practical Advice for the Veterinary Team. Edinburgh: Elsevier Saunders. Feline Advisory Bureau (2012). Scratching in the house. Available from: http://www.fabcats.org/behaviour/scratching/article.html [Accessed 3 March 2012]. Feline Advisory Bureau (2012). Scratching or clawing in the house. Available from: http://www.fabcats.org/behaviour/scratching/info.html [Accessed 3 March 2012]. Horwitz, D. & Mills, D. (Eds). (2009). BSAVA Manual of Canine and Feline Behavioural Medicine. 2nd Edition. Gloucester: British Small Animal Veterinary Association. Landsberg, G., Hunthausen, W. & Ackerman, L. (2003). Handbook of Behavior Problems of the Dog and Cat. Edinburgh: Elsevier Saunders. Overall, K. L. (1997). Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St. Louis: Mosby. Rochlitz, I. (Ed.). (2007). The Welfare of Cats. Dordrecht: Springer.
Sue Hartley BSc MSc CPsychol
Sue’s background is in the psychology of human and companion animal behaviour with particular interest in problem behaviour in cats and dogs. She has had more than 15 years experience of animal care, welfare, behaviour and training in domestic, voluntary and science settings. She is a chartered member of the British Psychological Society and a member of the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. Sue’s pet behaviour business Life on Paws helps pet owners in Harrogate and Yorkshire to understand, manage and change their pet’s problem behaviour through a range of pet behaviour services including behaviour consultations, workshops and home visits. She works mainly with cats and dogs but also other species too (e.g. rabbits). She adheres to the Code of Practice (http://www.apbc.org.uk/apbc/code_of_practice) of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and is covered by professional indemnity insurance, is Criminal Records Bureau checked and Home Office national security cleared. For more details visit Sue’s website at www.lifeonpaws.co.uk