Scratching Behavior

Anatomy of a Cat’s Paw

Understanding natural scratching behavior in cats starts with understanding the anatomy of a cat’s paw. Similar to humans, cats have 3 bones in each toe. The difference between our finger-nail and a cat’s claw is that the human nail grows from underlying tissue in the skin, whereas the claw grows directly from the last bone in the toe. Cat’s claws grow out in layers, with each new layer growing from the inner nail bed of the toe. The joint of the claw is “S” shaped to allow for retraction and extension, an important motion used in scratching, hunting, and climbing.

Why Cats Scratch

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photo by Natalie Taylor

  • To shed the outer layer of their claws.
  • To stretch.
  • To relieve stress.
  • To mark territory both visually and with pheromones.

Cats have scent glands in the pads of their paws that release pheromones as a form of olfactory communication. Most cats will scratch in prominent locations of the home with high human and pet traffic, as these are the best places to communicate. This is why cats often scratch the end of a sofa, the edge of a doorway, or the corners of a kitchen island. When a cat scratches within the house, they are marking their territory, creating an environment within which they feel safe and secure.

You may have noticed even declawed cats stretch and “scratch”. That’s because it feels good! Scratching is a normal positive behavior in the mind of the cat, but this normal behavior can be problematic in the home if the cat is scratching in undesired locations. Cats do not distinguish the difference between “right” and “wrong” locations for scratching, so the focus of behavior change should be directing the cat to a desired location using positive reinforcement. Punishment for normal positive behavior causes fear and anxiety, and because marking behaviors increase with stress, punishment may cause an increase in destructive scratching.

Scratching can also become a problem behavior if the cat is rewarded with attention each time it scratches in an unwanted location, even if it garners negative attention. This is another reason it is so important to reinforce the use of desirable scratching locations.

Prevention of Unwanted Scratching

We can’t prevent a cat from scratching, but we can find ways to prevent scratching in unwanted locations and prevent injuries caused by accidental scratching.

Claw Management

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photo by Natalie Taylor

Claw clippers come in a variety of styles. It is advisable to trim a cat’s claws every 2 to 6 weeks and more frequently for kittens as their claws are short and grow quickly.

Some cats also maintain their claws by chewing on them. This keeps the toes and claws clean and helps remove the layer of claw that is shedding. As a cat ages, it is less likely to routinely scratch and groom to maintain its claws. If your cat develops thickened claws or if the claw grows into the pad of the toe, you may need trimming assistance from your vet.

Another option for preventing damage from scratching is Soft Paws®, plastic caps that are glued onto the cat’s claws after trimming. A small drop of super glue or nail glue (the same that is used for humans) is placed in the plastic cap, and then the cap is placed over the claw. Caps generally need to be replaced every 4 to 6 weeks.

The Whats and Wheres of Scratching

Your cat is scratching the chair next to the front door, or possibly the kitchen door frame. She has just told you what she likes to scratch and where. You can use this information to create scratching objects in locations that appeal to both of you. Providing preferred scratching objects is extremely important in the prevention of unwanted scratching. Cats generally prefer a vertical scratching post that is at least 30 inches tall and covered with rope or sisal fabric. In order to provide stability, a base should be 1-3 feet wide. Cat trees should be at least 3 feet tall with 2 or more levels. Scratching surface preferences change with age, as older cats usually prefer carpet over rope. The incidences of unwanted scratching decrease when a sufficient number of desirable scratching posts exist in a home, which generally means more than one. You may have to experiment with multiple types and styles of scratching objects in order to find the combination your cat prefers. Many inexpensive scratching posts are available, but they are either too short or tip over easily.

scratching post

photo by Natalie Taylor

Some recommended products:

The location of the scratching post is also very important. Cats tend to scratch upon waking from sleep, so it may be helpful to place a post near the cat’s favorite sleeping area. Cats also like to scratch near us, so placing a scratching post in a location where the cat has a lot of human interaction is also recommended. A scratching post in a dark corner away from areas of social interaction will not see much use. Rearranging furniture to redirect the cat’s attention to desirable scratching locations may be helpful.

Provide treats, affection, or praise any time the cat scratches in an appropriate location. Positive reinforcement is key to creating desired scratching behavior. You can encourage cats to scratch by playing with toys on or around the scratching post or by applying catnip to the post.

To deter a cat from scratching your possessions, cover the items with aluminum foil, plastic tablecloths, double-sided sticky tape, or plastic carpet runners with the pointy side facing out. A motion-activated sprayer is another way to prevent a cat from approaching an area of unwanted scratching. Feliway® spray may also be applied to areas where scratching is undesirable. Do not apply Feliway® to desired scratching objects. Deterrents should be temporary; if a cat continues to scratch in undesired locations, add more scratching posts or find a post your cat will prefer.

Unwanted scratching may occur during interactions between the cat and people. This can be prevented by allowing the cat to initiate handling. Forced, rough, and unpredictable handling are common causes of accidental or defensive scratching. Children should be taught how to gently and appropriately handle cats. Proper handling should be modeled by all adults present. Never use hands or feet as objects of play. A cat should be redirected to use a toy in these situations; a wand toy is preferred as it brings the cat’s attention away from the body. Keep multiple wand toys on hand in all rooms of the house for this purpose.

Stalking behavior may be another cause of unwanted scratching. Stalking generally stems from boredom and continues as the person being stalked exhibits fearful behavior. Solutions to stalking behavior include adding intense play sessions with interactive toys to diminish boredom and also changing the behavior of the person being stalked. Fearful behavior (like that of prey animals) increases the cat’s desire to attack.

The Problem of Boredom

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photo by Natalie Taylor

A cat with nothing to do will find something to do. Unwanted behaviors like aggression towards people and other pets, chewing and scratching of household items, over-grooming, vocalization, nocturnal restlessness, and inappropriate urination or defecation can be reduced by increasing environmental enrichment and activity. Every cat needs a minimum of two 10 minute sessions of intense interactive play every day. Some cats need much more. The addition of vertical cat living space, a catio (enclosed outdoor space), interactive toys like wand toys or battery powered toys, and/or the implementation of food foraging can help prevent boredom. And two cats are better at keeping each other entertained, especially when it comes to kittens!

Claw Amputation

Commonly reported reasons for claw amputations are to prevent damage to household items, to prevent injury to individuals or other pets, or because a previous pet had caused damage in the home.

Some owners also report having claws amputated to “level the playing field” between the new cat and an existing declawed cat. Although surgery may prevent injuries, it doesn’t reduce the stress associated with aggression between housemates. It is more important to focus on slow introductions, and to provide adequate and separate resources for all cats in the home.

Declawing a cat involves amputation of the last bone in the toe. The claw is extended by pressing on the pad of the toe, and the skin, blood vessels, nerves, ligaments, and tendons are severed at the joint using a scalpel, laser, or guillotine-style nail clippers. This is comparable to the amputation of the last bone in your finger or toe. The amputation of healthy claws is an elective surgery and provides no medical benefit to the cat.

This procedure is quite painful and requires multiple forms of pain control to provide post-operative comfort. Cats must spend the day and night in the hospital, an experience that is very stressful for any cat.

When the surgery is performed, incomplete removal of the bone can result in nail regrowth. The presence of bone fragments causes pain and requires additional corrective surgery. The potential for poor recovery and long-term pain increases with age and weight, although even young kittens may exhibit signs of discomfort for weeks afterwards.

Conclusions

Haboob on cat tree

photo by Natalie Taylor

Destructive scratching is a behavior problem that can be solved by providing desirable scratching objects in preferred locations and training the cat to use those objects. There is a common misconception among cat owners that cats cannot be trained. With patience and education, cats can be trained to exhibit desirable scratching behavior. This training strengthens the bond between owner and cat, and eliminates the stress of dealing with unwanted behaviors. Providing adequate environmental enrichment prevents boredom. Unintentional scratching can be minimized with appropriate handling and play, and regular claw maintenance.

References: Journal of Feline Medicine and SurgeryAAFP 2015 Position Statement on Declawing

Behavior Resources:

 

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