Education Center

CATS AND CLAWS: TEACHING TIGER WHERE AND WHEN TO SCRATCH

Learn how to save your furniture by:

• Knowing why cats scratch

• Selecting the right scratching post

• Teaching your cat to use the post

Cats come with claws; they’re part of the basic equipment. It’s almost impossible to teach a cat not to scratch. But you certainly can, and should, teach Tiger WHAT to scratch.

Cats don’t scratch your furniture to be destructive or spiteful. Cats scratch because they need to scratch. When you understand those needs, you are on your way to teaching Tiger proper scratching manners!

Why do cats scratch furniture?

When cats scratch, they are achieving three very important tasks:

Shedding the dead outer sheath of their claws, which grow constantly like our fingernails. These old shreds of claws feel irritating to cats’ paws and cover sharp new claws. (Cats use their teeth to clean and shed their back claws.) The rough texture of most upholstery and of some wood is very effective for this shedding and shredding. And it feels good!

Stretching. Cats are athletes, and their bodies include a complex collection of muscles. Stretching full length to work out with the front claws is good exercise, feels wonderful, and is important to a cat’s physical and psychological well-being.

Marking their territory. This may be the most important reason that cats scratch. Cats have special scent glands on their paws, their jaws, their tails, and their foreheads. They use these glands to mark what is important to them; we can’t smell the identifying mark, but other animals can. When cats rub their faces against a person’s leg or a table leg, and when they scratch the sofa, they are marking those things with an invisible stamp which says: “this thing (or person) belongs to me.”

Cats will often stretch very high to leave a scratched mark telling any passing animal that “a very large and intelligent cat with sharp claws is in charge here…no trespassing!” Leopards and tigers, your cat’s cousins, use this method to mark territory, stretching 14 feet up a tree to dig deeply into the trunk with powerful claws. It works.

These marks must be renewed often as the smell fades or when cat-confidence is low. Cats who are frightened or under stress will often go to those places they have marked to refresh the scent and to reassure themselves.

What should Tiger use instead?

To accomplish these important tasks, without destroying your household, Tiger needs cat furniture: a cat “tree” or post. It can be anything from a simple board to a complex floor-to-ceiling tree with climbing ramps and cubbyholes in which Tiger can hide. You may need more than one if you have a large home and/or several cats.

But be careful. Many cat posts on the market are attractive to the human eye, but aren’t very interesting to cats. And some styles may actually make your problem worse!

A full-grown cat will probably not use a short post. Posts should be 18 to 24 inches tall; remember that stretching is an important part of scratching. A possible exception is a shorter board firmly mounted on a slant, allowing Tiger to stretch to full length without tipping the post over. But most cats prefer the full-body upward stretch.

Check cat posts for stability. If the post wobbles when scratched vigorously, or tips over because the base too small for its height, no cat will use it more than once. Some posts, designed to hang from a doorknob, work best when secured on both ends to so they won’t bang.

Avoid posts and trees covered in carpeting or upholstery fabric, even though the majority of cat posts on the market are exactly that! These posts may look nice in your living room, but it can be difficult to convince cats that this thing is acceptable to scratch and others that feel just like it are off-limits.

More effective cat posts are made of cork, corrugated cardboard, or sterilized logs firmly mounted. However, these styles shred quickly and can be quite messy. The most effective posts are covered with rough sisal rope or with the reverse side of carpet remnants. These rough textures are unlike any other in your home and feel great to Tiger’s paws and claws as they dig in! Both of these types can be made at home if you are handy (detailed instructions are available from our library).

A large cat tree with ramps, perches, or cubbyholes up near the ceiling encourages cats to sleep and play in these areas. This will be more attractive to your cat, and you will get more use out of the tree than you would with a cat post which Tiger can only scratch.

How do I introduce the cat post?

Some cats will immediately begin to use the post, marking it with their scent and returning to it often. If you’re adding a new cat or kitten to your home and you already have a cat with good scratching manners, the newcomer will probably learn by example. However, Tiger may need a little training to get the idea.

The post should be in an easy-access location where Tiger is likely to pass by it frequently. Your furniture will look very tempting if the cat post is hidden in the corner of a back room. If Tiger has started to show interest in the sofa, you might want to temporarily put the cat post next to that spot. When Tiger is using the cat post regularly, it can be gradually moved to its permanent location.

Some experts feel you should place your cat near the post, take the front paws in your hands, and go through the motions of scratching. However, this can startle and frighten kittens and cats. You certainly don’t want Tiger to connect negative memories with the post. Some positive ways to attract your cat to the post include:

  • Playing with Tiger at the post – Drag a ribbon or toy around and on the post, tempting your cat to grab at it. This will help Tiger find out how good the post feels and associate that with the fun of playing with you.
  • Making the post smell familiar – Try rubbing the post with unwashed clothing you have worn. One of the reasons Tiger scratches your favorite chair is because it smells like you! If your cat likes catnip (not all cats do), you may want to rub some into the post.

Every time you see Tiger using the post, praise your cat enthusiastically while the cat is in action. If your cat likes to be stroked, encourage use of the post by stroking and praising Tiger either while the post is being scratched or immediately after. Don’t startle your cat with an unexpected touch; be sure Tiger sees you first.

While Tiger is learning, how do I protect my furniture?

Once the good habits begin, and Tiger has marked the post as prime property, your furniture should be safe. But that takes some planning, too.

When you introduce a new cat or kitten to your home, or while you’re retraining a cat from old habits, cover any furniture that might be scratched. This will prevent Tiger’s scent mark from getting into the furniture’s fabric. Use an old, smooth sheet or a piece of heavy plastic (a dropcloth is ideal). Plastic is the better choice, since most cats intensely dislike the cold, smooth feeling of the surface on their feet.

If you are training a young kitten, choose plastic covering. Until they are four or five months old, kittens can’t jump up onto furniture; they use their claws to cling and climb. It’s simply a method of getting from point A to point B, but it isn’t a good habit to encourage with a cloth sheet.

Secure all edges of the covering with tape, taking great care that Tiger cannot get underneath and become trapped or suffocate.

What about breaking bad habits?

If you retrain Tiger to use a post (with the furniture covered), and the cat returns to the sofa after you uncover it, negative reinforcement is in order.

If your cat has already marked your furniture, you will need to mask that scent with an odor Tiger dislikes: try lemon juice, tabasco sauce, citrus-based cologne, strong pepper, or mothballs in mesh bags.

To be certain the upholstery won’t be discolored, first apply a small amount to an area on the fabric which doesn’t show. Then rub a few drops into the fabric where Tiger usually scratches.

If the fabric will stain or is very fragile, soak a washcloth in the chosen odor. Place the cloth on a piece of foil on the floor, or use safety pins to secure cloth and foil to the furniture.

“Booby-trap” the furniture by loosely securing an aluminum pie plate behind the sheeting at the usual scratching spot. It will move and rattle loudly when Tiger tries to scratch. This method works even when you aren’t in the room.
Spraying Tiger with water, shouting, or throwing handy objects are not effective methods of correcting bad habits in cats. Tiger will simply avoid scratching anything when you’re around!

Should I clip Tiger’s claws?

To help keep them sharp, cats keep their claws retracted (pulled inside the paw) until they are needed to climb, jump, catch, play, or scratch an itch. As they grow too long and curved, the claws cannot be retracted completely. Therefore you should clip off the sharp tips of Tiger’s claws, usually every week or so, on all four feet.

Clipping Tiger’s claws will help prevent claws from snagging in carpet or upholstery when your cat is running or jumping. Clipping will also save you and your clothing from discomfort and damage when Tiger happily kneads your leg or lap.

Use small nail scissors designed especially for a cat. The bigger clippers are awkward to use and can frighten Tiger.

If you have never clipped a cat’s claws before, ask your veterinarian or a cat-experienced friend to show you how. Gently press the pad of one foot, which will cause the claws to extend. Carefully clip off the tip of each claw, avoiding the pink blood vessel. Until you and Tiger become accustomed to this routine, one foot a day is enough of a challenge. Don’t push for all four at once or you will both have only negative memories of nail clippers!

The first few times your cat may attempt to wriggle out of your grasp while you clip; time will help you discover the position most comfortable for you both. Follow the clipping with something Tiger enjoys, like a treat or tummy rub, and the regular routine will be a positive procedure.

Should I declaw my cat?

When a cat is declawed, the veterinarian surgically removes the claws and the digits to which they are attached. The cat will experience some pain and bleeding while recovering from the surgery. Once the paws have healed, the cat should not have any unusual pain if the surgery is performed correctly. Declawing should not decrease a cat’s physical ability to jump, balance, scent mark, or defend itself. But the cat may not realize that.

Even if they are still physically able to do these things, many declawed cats lose some confidence and become overly defensive because they have lost a primary method of escape and protection if in danger. Declawed cats tend to jump less, hide more, and feel threatened by situations that a cat with claws would handle by simply leaving the area. Many resort to using their teeth inappropriately.

It is difficult to train some declawed cats, especially those with long hair, to use a litter pan. They may associate the pan with painful memories because the litter irritated their paws during the recovery period.

These are problems quite often experienced by those cats declawed on their front paws. Cats declawed on all four paws usually experience even more severe symptoms of anxiety. Some also have difficulty in grooming themselves properly.

Since scratching is a natural process for cats, and cats can be trained to scratch in acceptable places, declawing is usually a “last-resort” procedure which should be considered only if the cat will otherwise lose its home or its life.

This information is part of the Atlanta Humane Society’s SmartHeart Educational Series.

The AHS depends on friends to provide funding for our services and programs of animal aid, support for individuals with animal related problems, and community animal issues.

The Atlanta Humane Society and Society For Prevention Of Cruelty To Animals, Inc. is a private nonprofit organization for the purpose of preventing cruelty, relieving suffering, and providing humane treatment of animals. The Society’s mission is to eliminate causes of animal suffering with an emphasis on education and the human/animal bond.