“My wife and I recently adopted a four month old cat from a rescue group. He’s an awesome cat but our problem is that he is damaging our furniture with his claws. Motley has scratched a corner on the front of our dresser and an arm on the couch. We don’t want to declaw him but how can we make him stop?”
Scratching is a prime example of a behavior that is integral to the feline species but often deemed to be unacceptable by the human species due to the damage it causes. Human beings have a tendency to assign values to behaviors. We talk about “good” behavior (to be retained and promoted) versus “bad” behavior (to be corrected or extinguished). Cats don’t place judgment on their behaviors. They act as they do out of instinct. From the evolutionary perspective, these behaviors gave their feline ancestors a greater chance of survival and therefore they stayed alive to procreate and pass these behaviors to their off-spring. Over eons of time, these behaviors became hard-wired into the feline psyche.
To scratch or not to scratch, let’s look at this clash of expectations from the cat’s point of view first. When trying to understand your cat, keep in mind that virtually all natural behaviors of the feline species provide a survival advantage. We need to think about how scratching is useful in fulfilling the Feline Prime Directive: Eat, Procreate, and if you’ve let a human in the house…Mess with their Minds.
Scratching serves many important purposes for cats. Its primary function is communication. In nature cats spend a great deal of time roaming their territory not only to hunt but also check for the presence of intruders who might try to compete for their food supply. These are solitary activities for cats. They do not hunt and roam in packs as do dogs (and people). They needed to develop a remote means of communicating with other cats that enter the area. Scratching provides a lasting visual cue and a scent mark to warn trespassing cats as well as information for resident cats. Cats leave claw marks in the bark of trees or on fence posts. Think of it as posting a sign, “Keep Out, No Trespassing”. Simultaneously they are secreting chemical messages from specialized glands in the pads of their feet to modify the message using scent marking.
Another purpose for scratching is the upper body workout cats get as they stretch their bodies up the tree truck and then drag their paws down to the ground. Their claws are extended into the bark increasing resistance and leaving vertical marks as a visual message. Cats need strong shoulders and front legs to be effective hunters. Good upper body strength equates to a greater chance of survival.
A third benefit of clawing is the manicure effect. Cats need sharp nails to catch prey. Scratching sharpens the tip of the nail. Also, as nails age they shed their outer sheath revealing the stronger new nail beneath. Clawing material such as wood, fabric, carpet, and cardboard helps to release the old nail.
Clearly, Motley is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing. The clash with humans occurs because we have asked cats to come out of nature and live with us in houses filled with great opportunities, like furniture and door frames, to use their nails. Somehow we think that a “good” cat will know to extinguish this instinct once we let him inside. Loving a cat means loving all that cats truly are. I often refer to this as their “essential catness.” As their guardians we need to honor their needs. As home owners we need to find a way for our kitties to direct their behavior in ways that save our possessions.
Every cat should have one or more scratching posts. Evaluate the surface type that attracts Motley. Posts come covered with a variety of surfaces. You will find carpet, sisal rope, wood, rugged fabric, and cardboard options. The right one(s) is up to your cat. We’re in this to please him, so pick out something similar to what he is using now.
The post needs to be very stable so that when he reaches up to press his paws against it, it doesn’t wobble. Cats want to feel secure that this thing will support their weight and not flop over. Cats are frightened by things that fall down and go boom. Choose a post that is tall enough for Motley. It should be several inches higher than the length of his body fully stretched out. Measure his length by standing him on his back feet while gently extending his front limbs as high as possible. This height will allow him to fully extend his back when he is really getting into it.
Location, location, location…remember the primary purpose for claw marks is communication. The post should be located in a public area where there is a lot of foot traffic. Motley already knows that posting a sign in the back of the mechanical room won’t serve his purpose so there isn’t much motivation for him to use a post that is hidden away. An effective sign needs to out for all to see and sniff. A spot near the front door or in a prominent area of the room where you family spends most of their time seem to be favorites.
Lastly, he can’t read the brochure, so take the time to show him the use this new object (about which he will naturally be suspicious). Sprinkle it with catnip to draw him to it. Praise him when he shows interest. Gently put his front paws up on it and help slide them down to the floor. Praise him again and give him his all-time favorite treat. The goal is to make using the scratching post a fabulous experience and much more attractive than your furniture. >^..^<