Cat Scratching 101

Scratching behavior is a normal, healthy feline behavior. Cats need to be able to scratch as it is the best way to care for their nails and a basic form of communication between cats. All cats have scent glands on their feet, and while scratching certainly leaves a visible communication, the more important communication for your cat is the scent they leave behind on a scratched surface. This form of communication is often used to help set up home territories within your house, and help cats to understand where each other will be throughout the day. Think of scratched areas as their “Facebook pages” – telling everyone else where they are, what they have been up to, and what is going on in their world. If you do not provide a human-approved area for this behavior, you will likely find your cat picking a piece of furniture, a rug, or a door for this purpose. If this has already happened, it is imperative to follow these steps to prevent your kitty from resuming old habits:

  1. You must clean the surface with an enzyme cleaner to remove this scent marker. If you don’t remove their “Facebook page” from your sofa, they and any other cats in the home will continue to want to post their own messages there. Your local pet supply store should have a selection of enzyme cleaners geared towards pet stain/odor removal.
  2. You must also provide your cat with some human-approved areas for this communication. There are a ton of different types of scratching posts and pads commercially available as well as a ton of on-line options for making a cat scratcher at home. We generally recommend textures that your cat will not find elsewhere in the home so you may avoid your cat getting confused about where to “post” their updates. Some examples would include: sisal rope, cardboard, burlap, or tough outdoor substrates. Carpeted cat posts are also an option, but we recommend that the texture be very different from any carpets you do not want your cat scratching on! A great resource for information on DIY cat furniture/scratchers is the book Catification by Jackson Galaxy and Kate Benjamin, which should be available anywhere books are sold.
  3. Some cats prefer scratchers that are horizontal and others prefer vertical scratchers. In order to prevent problems, offering both is recommended; this is especially true for multiple cat households.
  4. The scratchers should be provided in socially significant areas throughout the home. Socially significant areas include areas on the perimeter of the home (including internal corners,) and areas that the cats and people spend a lot of time in. The average-sized home should have at least 2-3 scratchers located on different levels (if the home is multi-level.) These do not need to be huge cat trees, but your cat would love at least one to be something they can climb up and nap on!
  5. Make these human-approved scratchers more obvious and happy with the use of treats, canned food, catnip/spray catnip, and play sessions on or near them with you. Making these areas fun social hangouts will increase the likelihood that your cat will like these areas for scent marking.
  6. If your cat is on the nervous side, use of Feliway Diffusers can help reduce anxiety and anxious scratching. Feliway is a product that has a scent that mimics a cat’s self-calming pheromone made in their cheek scent glands. When you see a cat rubbing their cheeks on an item they are releasing this scent. If the area is marked with this scent, they are less likely to want to mark it with a scratch-scent too. These diffusers are not something you will smell in the home, so they work well even for sensitive noses. Each diffuser lasts about 4 weeks, with the option of buying refills that last 4 weeks as well. Contact us for more information on nervous scratching behavior, as there may be other items needed based on your kitty’s level of anxiety.
  7. All cats will need to have their nails trimmed on a regular basis to keep them short and untangled from bedding. Most cats should have this done at least every 8 weeks. If you are unsure of how to do this properly at home, give us a call! We can always show you how to do this, or we can trim kitty nails in clinic if you are more comfortable with that option.
  8. Nail caps such as Soft Paws are also an option for cats to avoid leaving any damage. These are plastic caps that are glued in place over freshly trimmed nails. As the nails grow back, they will need to be replaced. Nail caps are usually sold in sets with the adhesive included. We do also offer application of nail caps at our clinic for your convenience.

A note on Declawing…
Declawing is the process of amputating the final bone of each toe on a cat’s paw (there are 5 toes on each front foot and 4 toes on each hind foot.) Most commonly cats are declawed on the front feet only; it is rarely seen on all 4 feet. It is important to understand that this procedure is painful, and can cause on-going health issues for your cat such as early onset arthritis. Chronic pain from the procedure can also lead to behavioral changes such as house-soiling, hiding, or an increased risk of biting behavior. It is important to discuss all options with one of our veterinarians to hopefully avoid this often unnecessary procedure. If it is decided to move forward with this procedure, we do hospitalize your kitty overnight to provide nursing care and pain control. We also use the surgical laser and local nerve blocks to reduce pain and bleeding risks. Please call for further details on the declaw procedure, and to consult one of our doctors about other alternatives.