Kenneth M. Martin, DVM
Veterinary Behavior Consultations, LLC
Scratching is a normal and innate behavior of the domestic house cat. Approximately 60 percent of house cats will scratch furniture without the presence of any underlying behavioral problem (Morgan & Houpt, 1990). The potential problem of scratching should be considered before obtaining a cat. Because the behavior is normal, it can be difficult to modify or entirely eliminate. Preferences for certain materials or fabrics may be established early in life. Kittens begin to scratch in order to remove the sheath of their claws. Routine nail trimming can be effective in deterring the behavior. Proper and routine nail trimming can be demonstrated by veterinary staff and should begin at an early age. Food rewards and praise should be incorporated with handling and restraint procedures in order to make kittens more tractable to nail trims as adults (http://www.lowstresshandling.com/).
Cats may scratch furniture in order to mark their territory. The behavior is more common in multi-cat households where there is social tension amongst cats. In solitary cat households, the presence of other cats outside the home may be a trigger. Scratching is a means of visual and olfactory communication between cats. Claw marks provide a visual signal and glands located between the pads deposit the cat’s scent on the object. Feliway spray (Feliway) is commercial product that can be applied to scratched objects and it may reduce social stress. The odorless pheromone can induce cheek gland marking of objects which is preferable to scratching.
While some cats seem to prefer to scratch on vertical surfaces, other cats will choose to scratch horizontal ones. Owners of cats that are scratching furniture should pay special attention to the location of scratching and the physical attributes of the object (position – vertical or horizontal, height, type of material). A scratching post or board that mimics the preferred attributes of the clawed object should be provided in the room or near the object the cat is likely to claw.
All new kitten/cat owners should provide their cat with multiple scratching posts/boards. The behavior should be channeled to appropriate outlets. Most commercially available scratching posts/boards will be covered with sisal, fabric, carpet or corrugated cardboard. Favored locations for scratching seem to be near sleeping areas and in other prominent areas of the home in which the cat chooses to frequent. Interactions and interest in the scratching post should be rewarded with praise and food rewards. Catnip and the dispersion of toys near or on the scratching post/board may make it more desirable.
If scratching occurs on undesirable surfaces, one should first consider preventing the cat’s access to those objects. If this is not possible, the objects may be made unattractive by covering it with double-sided sticky tape (Sticky Paws) or plastic material (Cat Scratch Guard). A breakaway bell collar can be helpful for keeping an eye on your cat. When caught in the act of scratching, your cat should be redirected (cued) and rewarded for performing an alternate appropriate behavior. All types of punishment, including verbal reprimands, should be avoided. Punishment may lead to other stress related behaviors including urine marking.
Plastic nail sheaths or caps (www.softpaws.com) can be applied to your cat’s claws with permanent glue to minimize the damage done by scratching. The frequency the plastic nail caps will need to be replaced will depend on the nail growth of the cat. The procedure is best performed under the direction of your veterinarian.
Surgical declawing (onychectomy) is a procedure in which the cat’s first phalanx or last bone of the toe (including claws) of typically each forepaw is removed under general anesthesia by a veterinarian. The procedure can be considered only when other strategies have failed to remediate the condition or when clawing presents a zoonotic (animal-human-disease) risk for the cat owner(s). Although controversial, it is preferable to declaw the cat than to consider relinquishment or euthanasia. If declawed, cats should reside in an environment strictly indoors because their claws are a defense mechanism and aid in climbing. The average life expectancy of a free-ranging cat is less than 5 years, compared to indoor only cats living up to 20 years.
If you cat is scratching furniture, discuss the behavior with your veterinarian in order to make an informed decision about humane treatment.
From Dr. Randolph:
Please welcome Dr. Kenneth Martin as a guest author today. Dr. Martin will be contributing articles on controlling behavioral problems in pets periodically. Not only does he write well, but I’ve heard him speak to veterinarians before and he has an excellent presence. His easy demeanor translates well to caring for pets whose conduct is less than stellar.
Dr. Martin’s bio:
Dr. Martin completed a clinical behavioral medicine residency at Purdue University, Animal Behavior Clinic in 2004. He graduated from Louisiana State University, School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. He is a licensed veterinarian in Louisiana. He has practiced companion animal and exotic animal medicine and surgery, and emergency medicine and critical care prior
to completing his behavioral medicine residency. His professional interests include conflict related (owner directed) aggression, compulsive disorders, behavioral development, psychopharmacology, and alternative medicine. He is a frequent lecturer on animal behavior disorders. He is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association, Southeast Louisiana Veterinary
Association, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.
Dr. Martin is asissted by his wife, Debbie. Her bio:
Debbie is a registered veterinary technician in the state of Louisiana. She was the first Certified Pet Dog Trainer and Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner in the state of Louisiana. She has a Bachelor of Science degree from The Ohio State University in human ecology, and associate of applied science degree in veterinary technology from Columbus State Community College. She has been working as a registered veterinary technician since 1996 and has been actively involved in the field of animal behavior. She conducted puppy socialization classes and instructed adult dog clicker classes for Dog Talk Training and Behavior Services in Columbus, OH. She is an active member and the previous recording secretary for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (SVBT). The Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians is a professional organization dedicated to promoting scientifically based techniques of training, management, and behavior modification for animals. Debbie is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member, a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, and a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Behaviorist Austin TX