Why a cat scratches (and how to stop it)

Why a cat scratches (and how to stop it)

14/11/2019

On the furniture, on your hand during playtime, on the scratching post, on the floor... Cats scratch their claws on just about anything, which can be annoying if it causes damage. Why does a cat scratch and what can you do about unwanted scratching?

Why does a cat scratch?

Cats use their claws for various reasons:

  • Claw maintenance - When scratching, a cat will sometimes dislodge the dead outer layer of their claw. A fresh, sharp claw will then be exposed.
  • Relieve stress - Scratching relieves tension if a cat is stressed or has energy to burn.
  • Marking Territory - The glands under the paws release pheromones when a cat scratches. This calling card is a way for a cat to mark it's territory.
  • During play - light scratching and biting is to set boundaries during play. Rough scratching and biting occur when a cat hasn't learned to play gently during kittenhood.

Cat scratching is a natural behaviour and is something you should never punish a cat for. Cats that cannot scratch will potentially bite more instead, as they will be missing this natural outlet and defence mechanism. But, of course, scratching can be annoying for a cat owner in some situations. How do you keep your furniture and hands safe from kitty claws?

When does a cat scratch?

A cat can suddenly scratch for various reasons. For example: when getting up after a nap, after peeing, when someone comes home, after or during play, or when other cats are around.

A cat will scratch more when they are stressed, such as when visitors enter their home, during play or in the presence of other cats. You often see a cat stop to wash suddenly in these situations. Other physical behaviours that might also indicate tension includes a swishing tail, upright ears or wide-eyes. The tension is relieved by scratching: it breaks the ice, so to speak!

You will also often see a cat scratching or rubbing against the floor or litter box after peeing. This can be a form of marking connected to instinctive 'digging behaviour'.

Where does a cat scratch?

A cat will prefer to scratch in strategic locations. If the cat wants to mark their territory, this scratching might happen on doorposts on windows, near their food dish or litter box. A cat also likes to scratch at rough surfaces that are good for their claws, such as rough carpet, furniture, curtains and wood. A cat also will scratch at their favourite hangouts, such as next to their bed or napping-spot.

Preventing and stopping scratching

It is important to have a good dose of patience when you want to change scratching behaviour. In any case, never, ever punish your cat: this is a totally natural behaviour. Punishing will create confusion and stress, which can result in extra scratching.

Tips to stop your cat from scratching:

Use scratching posts or scratching boards in strategic places: for example, next to the furniture, cat bed or other location that your cat likes to scratch. Make a scratching post attractive with catnip, valerian drops or toys.

Find out how your cat likes to scratch: some cats like to scratch horizontally, others vertically. Choose a scratching board on the floor or a vertical board or scratching post. Use sisal rope, cardboard or rough carpet, as cats love these rough surfaces. Make sure to put scratching board at the right height: a cat wants to stretch its full body while scratching.

Make furniture unattractive by keeping it 'smooth': while training your cat out of scratching your furniture, cover your couch with a smooth sheet, and furniture legs with plastic foil or aluminium. Anti-scratching agents often contain unpleasant chemicals, are very smelly and only work temporarily.

Make carpets or steps unattractive by sticking double-sided tape on them. Offer an attractive alternative, such as a horizontal scratching board made of similar material.

Remove previous markings: cats like to scratch in places where scratching happened earlier. Clean the area as quickly as possible with an organic cleaning agent and sand out scratched parts.

Prevent tension in the house: if you suspect the scratching is actually marking, then assess your home and reduce any causes of stress for your cat. It is important to create a safe and peaceful habitat for your cat:

  • Make sure there are not too many cats in each other's space.
  • Provide high, safe resting places.
  • Provide enough places to hide and leave indoor doors open.
  • Give your cat freedom of choice for where they sleep, play, etc.
  • Provide enough litter boxes: a litter box for every cat.
  • Always clean the litter box: scoop it out every day, and clean it regularly.
  • Provide enough water bowls: spread water bowls around the house and keep them far from litter/feeding areas
  • Provide enough distraction and exercise: play with your cat every day

Prevent scratching during play

Scratching during playtime can be annoying if your hand is constantly being attacked! In order to discourage this behaviour, don't let a cat play with your hand, but use toys instead. As soon as a cat bites or scratches too hard, the game stops immediately and your hand stops moving, making the game unfun.

Cats that have been taken away from their mother too early or haven't learned to play politely may never quite master play without claws. Instead, play safely with a toy on the end of a rod or string so that the cat cannot scratch you. If the cat still uses their claws, for example, while napping on your lap, don't punish them but clearly say in a low voice 'No', move the cat to a distance away and ignore them. Then, give the cat positive attention if it is not using its claws.

Finally: scratching and biting can be a defence mechanism. Learn to understand the body language of the cat and avoid making the cat angry, anxious or aggressive. Also, teach children to respect the cat's limits. A thick tail, wide eyes, an open mouth and a thrashing tail can all indicate annoyance. Give the cat it's personal space to prevent aggression. Do you notice that your cat is suddenly scratching and biting more often? This can indicate pain or illness. For example, an older or sick cat may suddenly suffer from being picked up. Always check symptoms with your veterinarian.

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