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Scratching the Surface

Why your cat’s claws are vital to her wellbeing

Published in the Feb/Mar 2015 issue of Nashville Paw magazine

Furniture scratching. So many people are convinced this is a behavior displayed by cats just for the sheer thrill of destroying the living room sofa. If you live with a cat who has turned your upholstery into mere shreds, you’re probably at your wit’s end in terms of whether keeping kitty means abandoning all hope over ever having intact furniture again. The problem is that you might have gone at this the wrong way. You were trying to train your cat to not do something that is actually a normal and essential part of being feline.

Scratching is Normal, Healthy Behavior

Scratching is important and more complex than you may realize. You may be under the misconception that scratching is merely kitty’s attempt to sharpen his claws to razor-sharp perfection or that the behavior is based on a willful attempt to get back at you or destroy his surroundings. In truth, scratching serves many purposes. In addition to conditioning the claws, it’s a very effective way for your cat to stretch his back and shoulder muscles.

It also serves as a marking behavior for cats. The marks left on an object when the cat rakes his claws vertically create a visual sign for others who pass by. In an outdoor setting, these visual markers are important because they provide any approaching cats to see that they’re entering an area where another cat has been or is currently residing. This advance warning system can reduce the number of actual physical confrontations cats may otherwise have. When a cat scratches an object, he also leaves an olfactory mark by way of scent glands in the paw pads. This way, should another cat approach the scratch mark, he would be able to gather information from the pheromones (scent chemicals).

Scratching is also used as an emotional release or displacement behavior. When your cat is anxious, happy, excited or frustrated, he can release some of that built-up emotion by scratching. Think of the times you’ve seen your cat scratching on an object after a nap or when you’ve come home from work. You may even have noticed him scratching after an encounter with a companion cat. This emotional release through scratching is healthy for your cat.

Finding the Right Scratching Post

Since scratching is a complex and vital part of feline life, you’ll need an effective training method to redirect your kitty. You can’t just shoo him away from the sofa. You have to provide a scratching post that truly meets his needs: appealing texture, tall enough, stable and placed in a good location. In general, the most appealing texture for cats is sisal. The rough texture makes it easy for cats to dig their claws in and get an effective scratch. Carpet-covered posts are too soft and don’t meet the needs of most cats when they’re looking for a place to scratch. Additionally, many cats end up getting their claws caught in the carpet loops.

The height of the scratching post should enable your cat to get a full body stretch. If the post is too short, your cat has to hunch over to use it and that doesn’t allow for a good back and neck stretch. If that’s the case, kitty will probably seek out a taller option, and I’ll bet you can figure out what that option will be – your sofa! Make sure the tall post is also very stable. To offer security, a tall post needs a wide base in order to prevent it from toppling over or wobbling when your cat leans against it. (We love the Purrfect Post, pictured here.)

Once you’ve found the right post, it’s a matter of location, location, location. Even a great scratching post will just gather dust if you stick it in some far corner. When a cat needs to scratch he’ll look for the closest object that meets his needs. Keep the post where your cat most likes to spend time. If you have more than one cat, you’ll need more than one scratching post. Although you can’t specifically assign a post to a specific cat, if you place the posts in areas where the different cats tend to spend the most time, you may find they may just claim the posts on their own. For cats who like to scratch horizontally, there are inexpensive corrugated cardboard scratching pads available at your local pet product store.

If your cat has been scratching a piece of furniture, place the scratching post right next to it. You can cover the piece of furniture with a sheet, if the area being scratched is isolated to just a few spots, place a few strips of Sticky Paws on it. This is a double-faced tape made specifically for this purpose and is available at your local pet product store. This way, when the cat comes over to scratch the furniture, he’ll see the area isn’t as appealing, and he’ll notice the much better option: the new scratching post. There are also nail caps like Soft Paws, which aid in the training process.

Never, Ever Resort to Declawing your Cat

While declawing is still widely accepted in the United States, it is banned as animal cruelty in many other countries. It’s important to understand what declawing actually involves. Despite what many folks believe, it is not just the removal of your cat’s claws–it’s the amputation of the entire first joints! (To put it into better perspective, imagine having your fingers cut off at the first knuckle.) After declaw surgery, a cat’s paws are tightly bandaged and she’s kept overnight at the veterinary clinic. In some cases, cats aren’t even given pain medication after this surgery. Once the bandages are removed the morning after surgery, the cat is able to go home. Imagine how painful it must be for a cat to go home and have to start walking on those very tender paws!

Some cats recover without complications, but some experience tenderness in their paws long after the initial healing period. Some cats remain reluctant to have their paws touched for the rest of their lives, and can even become fearful and aggressive due to their lack of security. Don't our feline friends deserve better?

For a more in-depth exploration of the dangers of declawing, check out our other blog post here.

Pam Johnson-Bennett is a certified cat behavior consultant and star of the television series Psycho Kitty airing in the UK on Animal Planet and in Canada on Nat Geo Wild. Her new column, “The Feline Kind” appears in each issue of Nashville Paw. Pam is the best-selling author of seven books and owns Cat Behavior Associates, a private veterinarian-referred behavior company based in Nashville. For more information, visit her website at

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