Scratching Behavior in Cats: Various Approaches
Happy cats with happy cat owners in a happy home…what a beautiful relationship!
Sometimes this relationship hits a stumbling block and life is not so happy. Sometimes a seemingly harmless feline action can tip the scale and put cat owners in a difficult situation.
Sometimes what a happy cat does naturally – extending her claws to scratch what she sees as an appropriate surface – can tip the harmonious family balance and prompt her owner to consider removing her claws.
With the best interest of the feline community in mind, the subjects of scratching behavior and declawing are presented in this handout.
Why do cats scratch?
Cats scratch and claw for several reasons. First, scratching serves to shorten and condition the claws. Cats in the wild do not have owners or veterinarians to give them pedicures, so they take matters into their own hands (paws). Second, scratching allows an effective, whole body stretch. Cats stretch their muscles as they rise on their hind feet, arch their back, extend their legs, and extrude their claws. Third, and perhaps most importantly, cats scratch to mark their territory, both visibly, with claw marks, and invisibly, by leaving the scent from their foot pads. In addition, cats may exert their authority or play with a swipe of their paws to establish their place in the household.
Why is scratching a problem?
When domestic cats live primarily outdoors, scratching is seldom a problem for the owners. Cats direct their scratching at prominent objects, such as tree trunks and fence posts. They swat at flying insects and flowers swaying in the breeze. Of course, if they inflict wounds when they swat at other cats, or they get stung by insects, infections and abscesses may result that require veterinary attention. But otherwise, scratching and swatting outside does not tip the familial balance.
Cats residing primarily or exclusively indoors do not have tree trunks readily available, and may run into disapproval with their owners when they instead scratch furniture, walls, or use their claws to climb up the drapes. Claws can also cause injuries to people when cats are overly playful or resist handling. This will certainly tip the harmony scale.
With a good understanding of feline behavior and a little bit of effort, it should be possible to prevent or avoid most clawing problems and maintain a healthy balance.
What should you consider before declawing?
Before declawing your cat, consider working to redirect or prohibit her destructive scratching habits.
Consider your cat’s nature. Understand that indoor cats need outlets for scratching and marking. They also need a regular daily routine of social play, object play, and exercise. So spending time with your cat is a good first step to deter scratching. In the wild, cats hunt their prey, eat, clean themselves, and then sleep. Mimicking this behavior with a play activity followed by mealtime may provide a good routine for your cat to follow.
Consider your cat’s motivation. For cats that suddenly start scratching indoors, figuring out why is key to stopping the behavior. Some cats may increase their territorial marking (e.g., scratching, urine marking) in situations of anxiety or conflict. Scratching of new areas may be related to anxiety caused by a change in the household, such as the introduction of a new cat, moving to a new house, or a change in the family’s schedule. These changes tip the balance of your cat’s comfortable world.
Consider your cat's anxiety level. Decreasing your cat’s anxiety level may eliminate the scratching. Gradually introducing your cat to a new place or new family members (human, dog, or cat) will help her feel more secure. When changes in household routine occur (e.g., start of a new school year or job), spending quality time with your cat is very important, as is providing distractions during your absence (e.g., food hidden inside toys).
Consider your cat’s natural territorial instincts. If your cat scratches only new objects or furniture she may simply be marking unmarked territory. This will usually pass when she develops a sense of ownership of the new objects. Resident cats will also re-mark territory if someone new (human, dog, or cat) moves into the house. There are pheromone products (such as Feliway®) that help decrease household marking. Your veterinarian can help you decide if this type of product would be useful for your cat’s situation.
Consider medical therapy. If other signs of anxiety, such as a change in appetite or a change in social behavior (e.g., becoming more aggressive or more withdrawn) occur, consult your veterinarian. The combination of adjusting household situations and spending more time with your cat along with medical therapy may be needed.
Consider entertaining your cat. Providing your cat with a more enriched daily routine, including multiple feeding sessions, additional opportunities for social/predatory play, and new objects to manipulate and explore, may help to better settle her at times when she might otherwise be scratching.
Consider making physical changes in your house. Sometimes cat owners need to consider making changes in the household to stop anxiety-based or behavior-related scratching. If your cat returns to the same scratching sites repeatedly, consider making these sites less accessible. Consider confining your cat when you are not at home to supervise her, or cat-proof your home. If the scratching occurs in just a few rooms, keep her off limits by closing doors or using child-proof locks or barricades. To simplify matters when you are away, you can confine your cat to a single room that has been effectively cat- proofed. Of course, the cat’s scratching post, toys, water and food bowls, and litter box should be located in this room.
If cat-proofing is not possible or the cat continues to use one or two pieces of furniture, you may consider placing a scratching post directly in front of the furniture that is being scratched. Take a good look at the surfaces of the scratched furniture and ensure that the surface of the post is covered with a material similar to those for which the cat has shown a preference. Some scratching posts are even designed to be wall mounted or hung on doors.
What are non-surgical, non-controversial alternatives to persistent scratching?
Provide scratching options. One alternative to surgically declawing a cat is to train the cat to scratch only appropriate objects. Cats are usually about 8 weeks old when they begin scratching, so that’s the ideal time to start the training process. Place acceptable scratching posts in various parts of the house where the cat likes to spend time and one close to the cat’s sleeping quarters. Providing the proper outlet for the natural need to scratch may prevent any unbalanced household situations from ever developing.
Because cats use their scratching posts for marking and stretching as well as sharpening their claws, the post should be tall enough for the cat to scratch while standing on her hind legs with the forelegs extended, and sturdy enough so that it does not topple. Some cats prefer a scratching post with a corner so that two sides can be scratched at once, while other cats may prefer a horizontal scratching post.
Special consideration should be given to the surface texture of the post. Commercial posts are often covered with tightly woven material for durability, but many cats prefer a loosely woven material where the claws can hook and tear the material during scratching. Remember that scratching is also a marking behavior and cats want to leave a visual mark. Good post covers include cardboard, carpet, wood, and sisal.
"Commercial posts are often covered with tightly woven material for durability, but many cats prefer a loosely woven material where the claws can hook and tear the material during scratching."
Lure your cat to the post. Use one of the commercially available pheromones or catnip to lure your cat to the scratching post, or place a few toys or her food bowl nearby. A new product (Feliscratch® by Feliway) looks promising to help redirect your cat’s scratching from undesirable objects to her scratching post. It combines pheromones, catnip, and a dye, that when applied to your cat’s scratching post, will attract your cat to scratch there. Reward your cat generously with treats and affection for scratching her scratching post, especially in the beginning. This will help her to both understand what you want from her, and to develop a positive association with scratching there. Ask your veterinarian about commercially available products that may help to modify your cat’s behavior.
Make inappropriate scratching unpleasant. Aversion therapy may decrease destructive scratching. The simplest approach is to cover the scratched surface with a less appealing material, like aluminum foil. Or attach tin pie plates to the furniture by hanging them from string safety pinned to furniture arms that will create noise and a bit of a breeze when the cat attempts to scratch. Cats do not like sudden noises or breezes and may opt for the scratching post instead of the furniture. Applying special tape (like Sticky Paws®) to furniture is another option. Some cat owners booby-trap problem areas so that either scratching or approaching the area is unpleasant for the cat (e.g., motion detector non-toxic air spray or alarm, odor repellents, or stacked plastic cups that topple when the cat scratches).
Remember: None of these deterrents will successfully stop inappropriate scratching unless the cat has an alternative scratching area that is comfortable, appealing, and easily accessible.
Cover the claws. Another alternative to surgical declawing is the application of soft plastic caps (like Soft Paws®) to the nails. These nail caps are attached with glue to a clipped toenail. The nails continue to grow and the caps eventually fall off making frequent re-application necessary. Most cats tolerate this quick and painless process which can be performed in the veterinary clinic or at home.
Trim the nails. Lastly, all cats with claws need regular nail trimming. When done properly, clipping decreases the cat’s need to remove the shedding nail. Most cats require monthly trimming to keep the nails at a length the owner feels is appropriate. If you need help trimming your cat’s nails, ask your veterinary health team to show you how to hold your cat and trim her nails.
Why do some people choose to declaw their cats?
Why would a cat owner consider a surgical procedure such as declawing?
Sometimes, there is no controversy because there is no other choice in the matter. Declawing is often a necessary surgical procedure. In the case of cancer, not all tumors respond to radiation or chemotherapy alone, so amputating the toe may be the best way to reduce the threat to the cat’s life. Some bone injuries to the foot are too devastating to repair, making amputation the only viable alternative. These surgical procedures are not disputed. They are definitely in the best medical interest of the cat. The controversy arises when pet owners choose to remove their cat’s healthy digits (toes) for other reasons.
"The reality is that, destruction aside, scratching is normal cat behavior."
The most controversial reason cat owners opt for declawing is to stop the cat from scratching people, other pets, or furniture. The reality is, destruction aside, scratching is normal cat behavior. Cats do not set out to destroy the couch. They just want to condition their claws (‘husk’ removal), mark their territory, and stretch their muscles. Cat owners do not appreciate this, regardless of the motivation, and (unfortunately) try to suppress or thwart this natural instinct by removing the claws instead of redirecting the cat’s behavior.
Another less controversial reason people declaw their cats is to protect their own health. Cat scratches are no small matter for people with severe immune deficiencies or bleeding disorders. Declawing a cat may be the only way these owners can keep their cats. Both the health of the owner and the wellbeing of the cat are considered in this decision.
What is declawing?
While considering declawing your cat, you should understand the anatomy of cats’ toes (digits). A cat’s claws are attached to the last joint of their toes much like fingernails and toenails in humans. To completely remove the claw, the bone must be removed as well.
An onchyectomy, also known as partial digital amputation (PDA), involves amputating the last joint of a cat’s toes, thus removing the claw entirely along with the bone (3rd phalanx) to which it is attached. Amputation may be accomplished with a scalpel, guillotine clipper, or laser. This procedure is the equivalent of amputating a human finger at the first knuckle.
An alternate procedure, called tendonectomy (also known as tenectomy), ‘inactivates’ the claw without removing the claw or any bone. It does not involve amputation. This procedure, involves severing the tendon that controls the extension and retraction of the claw. Although the cat keeps her claws she cannot extend them to scratch. Even though the function of the claw is inactivated, the nails still grow and require frequent clipping. This procedure is outdated and no longer recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association or the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
"Healing may take days to weeks and cats need to be closely monitored at home during this period."
Both procedures require general anesthesia and post-operative pain control. A local anesthetic can provide up to 36 hours of pain free healing. Using pain medication for 3-5 days following the surgical procedure is also very important. The feet are usually bandaged to control bleeding and swelling. When the laser method of declawing is used, bleeding is minimal and bandages are kept in place for only a short time. Antibiotics are prescribed to prevent infection. Healing may take days to weeks and cats need to be closely monitored at home during this period. Since the front claws are most often used to scratch, only the front feet are operated on. The rear claws are usually left intact.
The American Veterinary Medical Association policy on Declawing of Domestic Cats recommends that the procedure only be performed after exhausting other methods of controlling scratching behavior, or if it has been determined that the cat’s claws present a human health risk. Similarly, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is opposed to elective or non-therapeutic declawing. Declawing is banned in several countries and/or regions including the United Kingdom, Europe, and Australia.
What is the post-operative care of a surgically declawed cat?
Certain steps need to be taken after surgery:
Litter box. Litter box duty can be especially challenging since cats use their claws to bury their eliminations. Litter sticks to the surgical sites, causing irritation, and exposes the feet to bacteria. Replace normal litter with dust-free, pelleted litter or shredded strips of paper for at least a week. Change the litter daily to minimize contamination of the surgery sites.
Exercise. As much as possible, discourage your cat from jumping on furniture and countertops for the first week after surgery by blocking access to these areas. If you see your cat on the countertop or high furniture, do not scare it into jumping off; instead, help it down. Cats primarily use their back legs to jump up, but may injure the surgical sites when they jump down and land on their front paws. If a cat limps or hesitates to move around after 4-5 days at home, consult your veterinarian.
Bleeding. Occasionally a cat will break open one of its incisions and a few drops of blood may ooze out. The blood should clot rapidly and form a small scab. Notify the hospital if you observe continuous bleeding or if your cat constantly licks at her paws. Do not attempt to clean the paws or apply any topical medications without consulting a veterinarian. Many doctors will advise a recheck examination two weeks after surgery to make sure healing is progressing normally.
Restricted access. After declawing, it is advisable to keep your cat indoors. Even though she still has her rear claws, a cat without front claws is at a disadvantage. While she may scale a tree, a cat missing her front claws may have a decreased ability to defend herself against aggressive cats or other predators.
Before deciding to declaw your cat, consider all the alternatives. There is usually a non-surgical solution to scratching issues. Some veterinarians decline to perform the surgery to resolve behavior problems.
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