By Denise Johnson DVM
Cats scratch for many reasons such as nail care, exercise, tension relief, and communication that includes both physical and chemical messages (DePorter, 2019). Scratching behavior is so innate that even cats who have undergone partial digital amputation, also known as declawing or onychectomy, still attempt to scratch. An individual’s mental and physical health is impacted by their ability to express this normal and healthful behavior. Unfortunately, cats may target items that their owners are unhappy with them scratching. Damage to property often results in damage to the human-animal bond if not addressed. Pet owners can become frustrated by scratching behavior, resorting to punishment that is often ineffective and further damaging to the bond. According to one survey, 69.2% of cat owners reported yelling at their cat when attempting to manage destructive scratching; water spraying was reported by 37.4%, and 15.4% resorted to spanking their cat (Moesta, 2018).
In keeping with the principles of LIMA (least intrusive minimally aversive), as behavior consultants we have a responsibility to offer humane solutions that meet the needs of cats as well as achieving results for our clients. Antecedent arrangement allows us to set everyone up for success, preventing unwanted behavior as well as the impulse to punish. Simply offering a generic scratching surface may not be sufficient in management of destructive scratching. Each behavior serves a function for the pet, otherwise it would not continue. The targets that a cat chooses serve a specific function for them, and by looking critically at those targets, we can be strategic in the alternatives that we offer. Provide a scratching surface that meets their needs comprehensively and promote its use to make scratching of the undesirable target irrelevant to the cat.
When collecting a history, assess the current scratching targets as well as the alternatives that have been provided so far. Consider what makes those targets desirable for scratching, looking for unique traits as well as overarching themes if multiple targets are present. Frequency and intensity of use can help clarify which items have the highest value. Scratching schedule can suggest the influence of availability or uncover a specific purpose. For instance, if a bedroom chair is primarily scratched immediately after waking, an alternative option can be made more easily accessible and the chair protected by removal or covering during that time.
When evaluating existing scratching options, look for what is working well and what can be made even better yet. Starting fresh may not be necessary. By optimizing the scratching surfaces that are already in the environment, you can conserve your client’s resources and help them to make the most of their budget. Craftiness is encouraged; items can be reinforced to provide stability, moved for accessibility, or reupholstered to fit texture preferences. While individual preferences vary, studies demonstrate patterns of popular choices among cats (DePorter, 2019; Wilson, 2016; Zhang, 2019).
Furniture, including couches and chairs, is commonly cited as the target of destructive scratching behavior (Moesta, 2018). Couches possess many traits that make them ideal scratching sites. Typically they are very sturdy, allowing cats to perform a full stretch and scratch routine without tipping. Cats commonly scratch after resting, making furniture such as sofas a convenient multi-function resource. In addition to providing lounging areas and scratching opportunities, couches are commonly in areas of social importance. This enhances their value as communication sites, serving a purpose similar to a community message board. Their large surface area gives ample room for physical and chemical marks to be made and offers both vertical and horizontal surfaces for scratching.
Cat trees with at least one level have been associated with a lower incidence of unwanted scratching (Wilson, 2016) and can offer many of the same advantages as sofas. Tall trees can offer a height advantage for cats, but must be stabilized to prevent any wobbling or tipping. Choose trees based on the features that take priority for the individual, noting whether horizontal or vertical surfaces are more frequently targeted and whether unique textures may play a role. Fabric is relatively easy to apply to most cat trees, provided the individual is comfortable using a staple gun. Ensure that resting areas are plentiful enough to prevent competition between cats in the household and place them near the existing target to take advantage of established social value and convenience of location. These recommendations also apply to the targeting of wide-based chairs or recliners.
Chairs with legs present different scratching benefits, requiring different alternatives. In addition to providing a stable post to scratch, legs of chairs and tables allow for “peek-a-boo” play. Many cats enjoy hiding behind an item and attacking what lies on the other side, at times wrapping their limbs or claws around the obscuring item in the process. Even if a cat is not intending to target the leg as a scratching substrate, this activity alone can cause damage. The canopy provided by a table or the seat of a chair can also add to a cat’s sense of security, combining opportunities for scratching, play, and safety. Cat trees that combine narrow posts with a hammock or hiding areas offer the same multimodal benefit. Stand-alone posts save space, but may lack inherent stability.
Simple vertical scratching posts are among the most common options made available to cats; of those posts, ones with wider bases are associated with greater actual use in the home (Wilson, 2016). This reinforces the importance of stability when determining a suitable scratching substitute. Unused posts should be assessed for stability concerns and secured as needed by increasing the size or weight of the existing base or otherwise anchoring the post. For homes where space restrictions take priority, consider leg wraps that protect the underlying furniture while accommodating the cat’s needs. Commercially available products, such as sisal mat wraps, allow easy application, while do-it-yourself guides allow owners to take an active role in providing for their pets. Owners who are comfortable crafting and customizing solutions for their cat have the choice of wrapping targeted legs in a wide range of materials including sisal, fabric, cotton rope, or carpet.
As a target of undesired scratching, carpeting can cause significant stress to owners. While damage to property of any kind can be upsetting, the cost of carpeting can escalate very quickly and, depending on the housing situation, replacement may be required whether or not it is truly financially feasible. Landlord pressure adds that much more strain to the human-animal bond. Carpet provides a horizontal surface that appeals to many cats, particularly geriatric individuals, and also represents the most commonly offered scratching surface (DePorter, 2019; Wilson, 2016).
It is unclear what leads to this preference among older cats. Considering its popularity as an available substrate, exposure during kittenhood may establish an affinity. It can also represent a more comfortable scratching option for cats experiencing orthopedic discomfort or other health concerns. Cats showing a change in preference should be screened by their veterinarian to rule out potential medical influence. Keep this in mind when offering alternatives; carpeted cat trees are only one of the solutions available. Cats who are targeting carpet due to ease of access and comfort concerns may prefer options such as horizontal cardboard scratchers. Discontinued carpet samples can often be obtained from local flooring stores at little to no cost, providing a buffet of texture and color options.
The power of choice has been found to reduce stress in numerous studies performed in zoo and laboratory settings (Kurtycz, 2015). Buffets allow cats to exercise choice, giving them more control over their environment and providing valuable information regarding their specific wants. When placed over existing targets, samples or rugs serve a protective role, and function as an appropriate outlet for destructive behavior. Grip mats can be used to prevent sliding, anchoring small samples in place. Location of the target is another important factor to consider and may actually play a greater role than the substrate itself, particularly if other items in the vicinity are also affected.
Walls are not inherently interesting, barring specialty wallpapers or hangings, but they benefit from large surface areas and high stability. For focal scratching of walls, critically assess the location. Compare the height targeted to the height of provided scratching substrates and adjust accordingly. Consider the common motivations for scratching and how they relate to that area of the home. Add stable vertical scratching options to nearby places cats lounge for convenient use after rest.
Scratching is a dual-function means of communication. Claws visibly mark the substrate while glands located in the pads of the feet deposit chemical messages via pheromones, which accumulate with ongoing use of a surface (Cozzi, 2013; Vitale, 2018). In multicat households, screen for signs of conflict in the vicinity or resources that may be contested. Scratching suspected to be secondary to conflict should be addressed holistically, taking into account environmental enrichment and training opportunities beyond the scope of this article (Ramos, 2019). Place sturdy substrates in front of targeted areas to serve as a barrier, making the target an inefficient option compared with the new alternative. Wall-mounted options are an excellent way to conserve space while meeting needs. In addition to standard commercially available options, properly anchored sisal matting can provide scratching and climbing opportunities. Carpet can be applied to items such as bookshelves, provided they are stabilized to prevent movement. In cases where the wall itself does have a preferred texture, provide a scratching buffet to find a competitor that can outcompete the target and reinforce use.
Doors serve as obvious boundaries of territory, making their social importance clear. Reinforcement of boundaries provides general comfort but becomes even more vital in cases of conflict, inside or outside of the household (DePorter, 2019). The presence of stray or wild animals may aggravate territorial stress, particularly if they are active in close proximity or are leaving their own chemical messages. As with scratching of walls, the location of the door may be more important than the specific orientation or texture of the targeted areas. A variety of scratching options should be provided any time destructive territorial scratching is suspected. This provides choice in a situation where lack of control over the environment may be a significant stressor. If space is limited in the immediate area, door-mounted scratchers can provide a suitable alternative. These should be used judiciously, as the majority of commercially available products have significant stability concerns and without modification may serve as an unsteady aversive experience rather than an outlet for natural behavior. As with cats coping with conflict within the household, those suspected of territorial stress benefit from a well-rounded approach to address underlying concerns beyond simple scratching management.
Fabric outperforms many substrates in assessments of common scratching targets (Moestra, 2018). Availability is common and shredding enables clear visual marking. The value of curtains goes beyond their basic material to serve additional valuable functions. To a kitten, curtains are especially attractive for the combined opportunities of “peek-a-boo” play and climbing that is not yet prohibited by weight. Providing zones of elevation takes advantage of available vertical space and caters to a cat’s natural preference for elevated positions (Wagner, 2018).
Cats have a unique status as both predator and prey animals, with both aspects benefiting from the perspective that comes from high places. Alternatives must be tall enough to be considered a reasonable substitute, affording the same view as the initial target, and stable enough to prevent tipping. Very tall options may benefit from being directly secured to the wall or ceiling. During the early stages of implementation, pinning sturdy materials out of reach and storing delicate material will help to focus the behavior on the desired outlet. As kittens practice desired behaviors and physically grow, stable trees become more appealing than unstable curtains. Enhance the value of the view by removing visual obstacles and increasing entertainment value through use of bird feeders or butterfly gardens. Window seats and strategic shelving can increase access without sacrificing floor space, but may not perform well when compared to multi-level trees (Wilson, 2016). Opaque window coverings may be used to reduce the value of competing problematic areas, but should not be used in isolation. Blocking visual access alone, without providing alternatives, does not address the underlying motivation and may increase frustration. Solutions should focus on providing desirable alternatives in order to meet needs and set cats and their owners up for success.
Individual preference varies. Studies that scrutinize the popularity of different scratching targets give us valuable knowledge at a population level, but may not be representative of a given cat’s preferences. Assess placement, size, shape, texture, and function of targets to better guide choice of alternatives. By considering a cat’s pattern of behavior and communication of their needs, we can better address scratching concerns with solutions that are relevant to them. Similarly, provide owners with management options that better address their underlying concerns while following the principles of LIMA. By setting pets and their owners up for success with antecedent arrangement, we can protect the human-animal bond and make punishment irrelevant.
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Kurtycz, L.M. (2015) Choice and control for animals in captivity. The Psychologist 28, pp.892–895.
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