Understanding scratching behavior in cats can keep your furniture—and the human-animal bond—intact

Nearly every time I walk into a client's home to care for their cat, the pet will greet me and within a few minutes of my arrival, if they're amenable to coming out and interacting, they'll begin giving their scratching post or cat tree a good bit of attention by rubbing up on it and scratching. This isn't at all surprising to me; cats express themselves in all sorts of ways and by them coming out and engaging in normal, healthy activity when their people are away, tells me they're doing well. There are benefits of scratching—some of them include being that it allows them to get in a good stretch, it's used an olfactory marker and an emotional release—so any I say, scratch away, friends. But only if its done it in an appropriate place, of course. 

Inappropriate scratching is a bone of contention in many households with cats, and it's understandable. The activity can produce mighty destructive results; I've seen many a piece of furniture destroyed, and some cat's penchant for wood trim is unmistakable. It seems important to say that this issue is one of the most-cited for relinquishment to shelters, attempts at rehoming—or even declawing, a topic that I assure you is a hotbed of well-deserved controversy in pet care professional and advocacy circles. 
Oft-misunderstood, I need to reiterate that scratching is a completely normal behavior, much like a good chew party is for dogs and it's something that felines do even into old age. Equally important to state is that by providing appropriate objects to scratch on, you'll not only be saving your stuff from being destroyed along with your important human-animal bond—it's also a terrific form of feline enrichment.

So, your cat needs something enjoyable and appropriate to scratch on. What to choose? There are tons of products on the market, right? It's easy to pick up the most convenient or newest thing on the market, but really, as a 2015 study illustrated, it all comes down to a cat's preferences; the substrate used, the structure itself and where said appropriate scratching product is placed. 
Disposable fun
Scratching boards made from cardboard are a common sight in pet stores, and are an economical option. Kitties can give them a pretty good workout and I find that because these are low to the ground and typically horizontal, they're a good choice for senior and geriatric cats. They can be flat, inclined and come in different sizes. Some scratching boards are made from sisal/rope. 
More permanent options 
Carpeted scratching posts are an option that some cats like, and can be obtained easily. Carpet isn't as effective as you might think at offering a nice, solid scratch for the younger crowd, though senior and geriatric cats seem to prefer them. You can purchase one, or if you're feeling ambitious, go the DIY route.
Sisal, or rope posts are, according to the vast majority of my charges, the cream of the crop when it comes to working those claws. They're favored by clients as well, and in my experience, can tolerate the most vigorous feline punishment. This substrate holds up incredibly well and offers the kind of contact that younger cats appreciate, and plus, it's derived from a renewable resource. (DIY fans click here.)
Cat trees/condos are popular, as they not only provide a variety of satisfying substrates on which to flex those claws, but offer happy places to perch themselves. According to the aforementioned study, there's more to cat trees than meets the untrained eye. Height and composition are just two components that seem to matter to cats of all ages. For young cats, cat trees that are a minimum of three feet in height and crafted from sisal or rope are pretty boss. Height is important here, as it's thought because of this age group's optimal agility and mobility comes into play, so a cat tree with two or more levels is tops. (This is where the enhanced enrichment comes in.) I'll note that when cats are climbing up a cat tree, it's easy for them to get their claws caught in the loops of carpet substrate, so on a second or higher level, look for sisal/rope to minimize that prospect. I find that cat trees with a base of at least 2-3 ft wide are best, since young cats especially have a tendency to run and jump up on cat trees, and a wider base helps to keep them from toppling over. 
If you lead, they will follow…
Getting your cat to use a scratching post or cat tree instead of the antique chair that once belonged to your favorite aunt isn't always as simple as plopping the item down and letting them have a go at it. After all, some cats are particularly sensitive to new pieces of furniture in the house (which essentially is what this is), so getting some pets comfortable with this seemingly weird thing might take a little nudging. Feliway is always helpful (I think it should be in every home with felines), but really good catnip as an attractant and positive reinforcement along with food rewards are integral to getting cats to focus their energies on clawing on an appropriate surface. Cats are trainable (!!), and Julie Hecht of Dog Spies offered up a terrifically helpful and funny article on how she trained her cat, Josh, in preparation for the arrival of a new couch. Click here to read that
Location, location, location

Where the scratching post or cat tree is placed can make a difference in how open a cat is to using it, so being mindful of what locations in the house your furry friend prefers to scratch is key. One idea to keep in mind is that cats often like to scratch after a snooze, so keeping a cat tree or scratching post close to their favorite napping spot, because convenience is king, is a good strategy. 
A final word: well-trimmed nails are helpful in keeping the peace and promoting healthy claws. So, it's important that a cat is used to getting his claws trimmed, so ideally, we want to create positive associations with that while they're young. If you've an older cat that is less open to the idea of nail trims, don't fret—there's hope. Click here for strategies on helping young cats develop a good association with the notion, and for older, resistant cats, get more comfortable with the idea. 

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. She has been a featured guest on the Pawprint Animal Rescue Podcast, talking about her career working with companion animals and in animal hospice — as well as the benefits of introducing palliative care with one's pet earlier. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter

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