Updated: Feb 27, 2020
Cat Behaviourist and Honeysuckle Cat Toys owner Clare sheds light on why cats scratch the furniture and other objects in their homes, and how they can be encouraged not to!
Scratching is a normal feline behaviour that usually starts from around 5 weeks of age. It is both inherited and learned. There are a number of reasons why cats scratch. Firstly, it’s important that they exercise the muscles and the claw-motion used in hunting and climbing. It also helps to remove the worn outer claw husks (or sheaths), revealing nice sharp claws underneath. It provides cats with a way of stretching out their bodies which can help relieve muscular tension and is a good workout for the muscles of the forelimbs.
Scratching can also be used by the more manipulative and social members of the cat world as an attention seeking strategy or as a precursor to play.
Finally, but very importantly, scratching is used by cats as a way of marking their territory. Some cats will use urine-spraying whilst others may just use scratching, which is the far more acceptable behaviour of the two as far as we owners are concerned!
Cats have scent and sweat glands in between the pads on the underside of their paws and these mix to produce a unique smell. When they scrape their claws down, or along a surface the scent is deposited and the combination of the visual mark and the smell provides a strong message to other cats.
Scratching is a behaviour which is innate in all cats and if you don’t provide a dedicated outlet for this activity such as scratching posts and/or mats, you may well end up with ruined furniture!
What Do Cats Scratch? Cats choose a variety of surfaces for scratching both indoors and outdoors, vertical and horizontal, depending on their individual preferences. The most commonly used surfaces tend to be those that are stable enough to withstand the force applied by them as they scratch.
Popular scratching surfaces include carpets, textured wallpaper, soft furnishings such as sofas, and doorframes, window frames or bannisters made of soft wood such as pine.
Where Do Cats Scratch? Given the choice, cats like to show-off their scratching prowess in front of us and/or other cats. This is their way of showing territorial confidence “this is my turf and don’t you forget it!”
However, if you notice your cat scratching in lots of different locations around the house, in particular around exit and entry points such as windows and doors, it could be that the cat is signalling a general sense of insecurity. This could be due to the presence of more assertive cats either inside or out.
Cat Scratching Posts
Cat scratching posts can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are large tall ones, small ones for kittens, ones with lots of platforms, as well as horizontal scratchers which may be favoured by elderly cats or those that can't climb. They also go by different names: cat tree, cat activity centre, cat climbing frame, cat tower - you get the picture!
However, for our territorially inclined cats, it’s not enough to buy just any old scratching post and put it somewhere in our homes where it blends in with the rest of the furniture. We need to provide the right sort of scratching posts, in the right quantity, and put them in locations where our cats will use them. All this may take trial and error and is also very much dependent on your budget and the space available.
What Type of Cat Scratching Post Should I Buy?
Before buying a scratching post for your cat, you may want to consider the following:
If you’re purchasing for a kitten, there are plenty of small sisal scratching posts available for them to get their claws into!
As cats grow, so should the size of their scratcher. Whether they are individual vertical posts or tall multi-level cat trees, there should be at least one post that is long enough to allow your cat to use it at full stretch.
The tall, modular cat activity centres allow cats to climb and scratch, and also provides a high place for them to rest and feel secure. For the more anxious feline, you might like to choose one that has an enclosed or part-enclosed cave incorporated into it.
The post must be stable enough to withstand the strong pull from your cat’s claws. If it moves around or even topples over, your cat may be put off using it for life! For standalone scratchers, those with wider barrels provide a bit more stability, and for the ultimate in steadiness, tall sisal scratching posts are available that can be fixed to the wall.
If space is limited then commercially available scratching panels can be attached to walls at an appropriate height. You can even make these yourself using woodchip panels and covering them with either sisal twine or carpet.
Some cats prefer to scratch horizontally and this may be especially true of the senior citizens of the feline world as well as for cats that have some form of deficit or disability, or even small kittens. You can cater for their needs by providing scratching mats, scratching boxes made from corrugated cardboard or even coir mats from a hardware store
If you’re feeling creative, you can of course build your own scratcher! If you decide to cover the posts and platforms with carpet, don’t worry that you will be unwittingly training your cat to scratch your carpet. There is no evidence to suggest that your cat's scratching habits will generalise to other areas of carpet within the home once the post is used regularly. However, to reduce any chances of this happening, avoid using an off-cut of any other carpet currently in use in your home and instead choose a piece of hard-wearing material recommended for heavy traffic areas. This will probably last longer and remain the only destination for your cat’s claws!
Ultimately you may need to experiment with a variety of types and textures before you’re able to fulfil your cat’s expectation of a useable scratcher!
Where should I put a Cat Scratching Post?
The position of a scratching post is just as important as the type of post you provide. It may suit you if the post is in a discreet corner where it blends into the background, but it’s likely that your cat will have little inclination to use it there. Instead, you might like to try the following:
Place the post in a room your cat particularly likes being in, and near a window. This will provide him with a wonderful perch from which to view the outside action.
Cats often stretch and scratch when they wake up. It’s a good idea therefore, to position a cat scratcher next to their favourite sleeping place.
How Many Indoor Scratching Posts Should I Get?
It is recommended that you provide one cat scratching post/mat for each cat in your home, and these should be placed in separate locations. One further post, over and above this is ideal as it gives your cats additional choice.
Introducing a New Scratching Post to your Cat
Having gone to the trouble of purchasing a brand-new post for your cat, you’d no doubt like him to be as enthusiastic possible and start using it the moment it’s taken out of the box! So, you could be forgiven for going to get him and for rubbing his front paws against the post.
If you do this, it’s more likely that he’ll head for the nearest sofa and scratch that instead! To make the post as attractive as possible it’s best to let him discover and explore it for himself. You can aid this process by sprinkling loose catnip around the base of the post; some scratching posts even come already impregnated with catnip.
Once your cat has approached the new post you might like to use a toy such as a piece of string attached to a feather or a fishing rod toy, and swish it around the post so that his claws catch in the material covering it; this often triggers a scratching motion. You can further enhance the attractiveness of the new post by spraying it with a calming product such as Pet Remedy Pet Calming Spray. If it’s a tall post with multiple levels, you can encourage your cat to climb it by putting dry food on the top level.
Scratching outdoors It’s just as important for cats with outside access to be able to scratch in their outdoor territory. Tree trunks and sturdy wooden fence and gate posts all provide good opportunities for cat scratching activity, especially in areas of high density cat population.
How Else Can I Stop My Cat Scratching the Furniture? If your cat has been scratching soft furnishings, if possible they should be removed, or he should be denied access to them once the new post is in place. Or you can try temporarily removing any fabric cover on the item that he’s so enjoyed scratching, or protect it with a material that he’s not so keen on for example double-sided sticky tape or plastic.
Unpainted doors made from soft wood (for example pine) that have been used for scratching can be replaced with hardwood doors and painted with gloss paint to deter scratching. The scratched areas on the old doors can then be cut out and attached to the wall next to the new door at an appropriate height to make them the target of scratching, not the new door.
Ensuring your cat’s nails are trimmed regularly will help prevent them from splintering, but how frequently you need to do this depends on your cat’s lifestyle. If your cat is allowed outside, his nails will be worn down naturally and will therefore require less frequent trimming. However, kittens, elderly cats and indoor cats will require more regular manicures!
If your cat’s scratching is related to anxiety, stress or attention seeking, providing a complete programme of environmental enrichment may be necessary.
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