Cat scratching - how to prevent unwanted scratching
Scratching behaviour is a normal, natural behaviour for cats, yet it is commonly reported as a problematic behaviour by owners.
Indoor cats are prone to scratch on household surfaces and therefore can become destructive and damaging to furniture.
Cats perform scratching behaviour for the following functions: to leave both visual and chemical markers, to remove the nail sheaths, to stretch and flex their claws.
To prevent scratching of unwanted surfaces:
1. Provide appropriate scratching surfaces
Scratching posts/items should be accessible for your cat(s) throughout your household. There are a number of different scratching surfaces available through local pet stores or online shopping platforms, in the form of posts, boards, or even cat beds (our cats actually love to sleep on their cardboard couch-like scratching surface). Try different forms of cat scratching materials such as horizontal, vertical, and different material types (sisal rope, cardboard etc.). The more you have available and accessible, the more likely your cat will seek those out instead of your lovely leather couch.
It is also best practice to place your scratching posts near the places they frequently scratch - so if they scratch one specific corner of your couch, place a scratching post right in front of that location on the couch.
2. Reward when they scratch appropriate surfaces
Whenever they approach the scratching surface to scratch reward with a treat! This will help create a positive association with scratching that surface and can help reduce occurrences of scratching in unwanted locations.
3. Encourage the use of appropriate scratching surfaces
To encourage the use of scratching surfaces you can sprinkle catnip on it. Catnip can help draw your cat to the scratching surface and promote the scratching behaviour.
4. Blocking access to main areas or items they like to scratch
Sometimes you can have all the scratching posts imaginable and your cat will still prefer to file their nails on your favourite chair. To deter them from still scratching on your household items: block these areas.
Wrapping aluminum foil, double-sided tape, or a sticky paper (found online) on your household items can deter them from scratching there in the future - they will learn that they don't successfully get to scratch on that item and will move elsewhere (hopefully if guided properly they move to the appropriate scratching surfaces!).
As one of the functions for scratching is to leave a chemical marker (a scent), spraying Feliway® on the household item can deter them from scratching. It can signal to them that this is a safe or known area and they do not need to mark it.
5. Frequently trimming their nails
Trimming your cats nails, though important for maintenance and comfort of your cats physical health, can be beneficial for managing cat scratching behaviour.
If your cat is not comfortable with you touching their paws it is best to apply counter-conditioning and desensitization techniques to gradually expose them and get them comfortable with the procedure. Consult a professional as to what this may mean for your cat. Further, if you are not comfortable trimming your cats nail, please consult with your veterinarian.
6. Do not punish your cat for unwanted scratching
As previously mentioned, scratching is a normal, natural behaviour in domestic cats. Therefore, the cat should not be punished for something that is in their normal behaviour repertoire.
Previously, professionals have suggested the use of positive punishment techniques to deter cats from scratching unwanted materials (e.g., spraying with water, making a loud noise). These methods are not encouraged.
The use of positive reinforcement (rewarding when the cat performs a wanted behaviour - for example, scratching an appropriate material), and the use of the above tips can help reduce the occurrences of unwanted scratching and help protect household furniture and items!
Unfortunately, declawing (surgically removing the claws) has been an available option for owners to manage or prevent scratching behaviour. This method is not recommended due to the negative impacts it has on the cats welfare (e.g., acute and chronic pain and negative behavioural changes). There are at least 22 countries that have banned this practice though - which is a great start!
For more information on cat scratching: http://www.catswannabecats.com
Bradshaw, J., Casey, R.A, Brown, S.L, (2012) The behaviour of the domestic cat (2nd Edition), Wallingford, Oxfordshire, UK ; Boston, MA
CVMA (2017). Partial Digital Amputation (Onychectomy or declawing) of the domestic felid – Position statement. https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/partial-digital-amputation-onychectomy-or-declawing-of-the-domestic-felid-position-statement
Landsberg, G. (1991). Feline scratching and destruction and the effects of declawing. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice, 21(2), 265-279.