Before tackling the issue of destructive scratching, first let’s understand that scratching is a perfectly normal behaviour for a cat. They do it for 3 reasons:
Bateson, 2014); and
You might also see a cat using a vertical scratching post shortly after they wake from a curled up sleep – great for stretching out their limbs.
When I’m doing assessments in people’s homes, I’m looking for a scratching post or horizontal scratching pads. Sometimes there are posts or cat trees and sometimes there’s nothing … and then the cats will usually have used whatever is available to them, including the carpet or sofa. The corner of a sofa, to a cat, is a good option, being tree-like of fence-like – and once chosen, they will return to it to replenish their territorial marking (Turner & Bateson, 2014).
In this post I’ll explain about the types of suitable scratching materials and why it’s important to think about the size and location of the post or pad. And then I’ll go on to give you tips on ways to teach your cat to use the new scratcher.
Scratching posts or pads
We don’t mind our feline friends scratching fence-posts or trees, but when scratching within our homes, we get upset if our sofa, walls, curtains that get the scratching treatment. The inside of our homes are part of a cat’s core territory so we need to do 2 things:
The ideal is to provide both vertical and horizontal options as some cats prefer one or the other and some like both. After a cat wakes up, they will often want a tall post to use and have a good stretch of their limbs. When they’re frustrated they might instead use a horizontal pad to vent their energy.
Some things to consider with vertical scratching posts:
In the picture on the right, you’ll see a very well-used scratching post on the cat tree.This is in my lounge and I haven’t replaced it because it has my cat Poppy’s scent on it – she uses this post every day.What I’ve done is to buy some more sisal which I’m going to replace one post at a time so it’s not removing all of her scent at one time. Or I might buy a new cat tree and stand it next to this one so she can start to put her scent onto it – and only then will I remove the old one.
On the right of the picture you can see a tiny wee post.A friend bought that and she had an adult cat and it wasn’t used at all and instead the cat caused quite a lot of damage to her carpet.
On the left is a figure 8 scratch pad which is very well used.This is usually placed in a room off the kitchen, near to where Selkie and Poppy eat.It’s also near to some doors through which they see into the back garden where there are birds and the occasional visit from a neighbouring cat.Then I’ll see them madly scratching the pad.
In a recent study by Zhang, Plummer and McGlone (2019), they evaluated kitten preferences towards different scratchers. Their findings were that the S-shaped cardboard (similar to the figure 8 version), is most preferred.The authors acknowledge though that this doesn’t match other survey-based studies which probably reflects the fact that different cats have different preferences and may even like both vertical and horizontal scratching options.
Teaching your cat what to scratch (and what they can’t!)
The first step is to encourage use of the new scratching post. If your cat responds to catnip, place some on the post to draw attention to it. Or you might use a wand-type toy to entice your cat to use the post and then, when they do, tell them they’re a good girl/boy and provide a food treat.
To prevent your cat from scratching the sofa, consider placing a towel, blanket or throw over the scratched site. Then if they try to get to the site, gently move them to the new scratching post and give a treat, praise when s/he uses it. You will need to do this consistently so that the behaviour you want to see repeated – in this case scratching the sisal scratching post – is positively reinforced.
Cats don’t respond to punishment so please don’t shout/yell or punish your cat if they try to use the sofa – remember this is a normal behaviour for them and if you yell, they don’t know they shouldn’t do that and they will become fearful and distrusting of you. Instead, gently move them to the new scratcher and praise when they use it.
If you have a scratching post as part of a cat tree, think about locating it near to a window so they have a high up perch to look outside. Or locate it near to a pathway to escape another cat, dog or young children e.g. place near to a cabinet so they can access that either to sit on or as part of an escape route.
Turner, D. and Bateson, P. (2014). The Domestic Cat. 3rd ed. Cambridge: University of Cambridge, UK.
Zhang, L., Plummer, R. and McGlone, J. (2018). Preference of kittens for scratchers. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 21(8), pp.691-699.