Scratching 101: Understanding Why Cats Need to Scratch

May 20, 2021
feline behaviour

Though sometimes it seems like cats have a vendetta against soft furniture and carpets, scratching is normal – and necessary. 

When a cat stretches and scratches their cat tree, it’s a sign that they are feeling well. You can almost see the bliss they are experiencing while they are enjoying a good solid scratch session. This behaviour is instinctive for all cats: scratching is part of being a cat. 

Why Cats Scratch

A cat’s nails are important. They’re needed for climbing, self-defense and communication. Cats communicate their territories in two main ways – with scent and with visible scratch marks. 

When a cat scratches a surface, they deposit pheromones (scents we aren’t able to detect) with their pads. They also have glands in their cheeks, which they will rub on surfaces. Cats also use urine to mark their territory. 

Scratching a solid, sturdy, vertical scratching surface helps cats stretch and tone their muscles. It also removes old outer nail layers to help keep their nails sharp and strong. It’s a mani-pedi for kitties.

Deterring Destructive Scratching

Most of us don’t want kitty to scratch the furniture or curtains that we have worked hard to acquire, and we also don’t want to have anyone get scratched. Here’s how you can prevent this from happening:

  • Welcome the scratch! It is essential to have a good, solid object that your cat is allowed to scratch. A cat tree should be located in an area that the family congregates in, not hidden in a distant corner of the house. If it includes resting/observation platforms, even better.
  • Teach your cat where to scratch If your cat isn’t immediately attracted to the scratcher, or mostly uses it to sit on, there is hope: cats learn quickly. Reward your cat with treats, strokes and kind words when you see them use the right surfaces for scratching, and they’ll quickly learn what they’re supposed to do.
  • Trim your cat’s nails Cats’ nails grow continually, (just like human nails), and sometimes the sharp points get caught on furniture or carpets, making it difficult for the cats to free themselves. This is especially troublesome for older cats who may already have strength problems and often have painful arthritis. Untrimmed nails can grow back into the cat’s pads, which can lead to pain, infection, and other severe complications.
  • Trimming nails doesn’t have to be difficult. Ordinary human toe-nail clippers are easy to use and are, (in my opinion), better suited to the flat shape of a cat’s nail than circular cat nail clippers. Patience, rewards (treats) and a towel to bundle him/her in go a long way.
  • Try nail caps or covers Nail caps/covers are an option for cats. They don’t stop the nails from growing, however, so kitty’s nails still need to be trimmed (and nail caps replaced) every 4-6 weeks.

How to Choose the Right Scratching Surface

When it comes to choosing the right scratching surface for your cat, keep this in mind:

  • Most cats like to scratch vertically (standing up on their hind legs). Others like to scratch horizontally. Pay attention to where your cat seems to like to dig their nails in, and whether it is upright or along the floor.
  • Make sure your structure is sturdy. If it is unstable, or hanging, cats may lose their balance, and they won’t want to use it after that.
  • Put your scratching surface in a room your cat actually likes to spend time in. For most cats, that’s usually near where they sleep, or where the family hangs out. And near the surface they have chosen to scratch…
  • Sisal rope/matting or carpet are the most used surfaces. 
  • Make sure you have multiple places throughout your home for your cat to scratch. 

Declawing is Never An Option

Declawing and tendonectomy are banned in most countries in the world, in most Canadian provinces, in several cities and states in the USA, and in all clinics operated by VCA throughout North America. 

Regardless of the technique used (laser, scalpel or guillotine), declawing is actually amputation at the last joint of each toe. As you can imagine, even if pain relief is provided during and for a few days after the surgeries, those toes will always be painful. Long-term changes may be subtle – cats may not want to play as much, or may not jump as high or as freely as before surgery. 

There can also be more obvious and undesirable effects. Some cats will avoid the litter box if the litter hurts their feet. Some cats will start to use biting as a primary form of defense rather than swatting with their paws. As you can imagine, these effects may result in people choosing to rehome or abandon their cat. 

Remember: Your cat isn’t being malicious when they dig their nails into the arm of your sofa. They’re just doing what cats do. With a few suitable scratching surfaces and some positive reinforcement, you can save your furniture – and give your cat the satisfaction and benefits of a really good scratching session.

This article was written by feline specialist Dr. Margie Scherk DVM, DABVP.

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