Although humans have lived alongside cats for centuries, we still run into problems understanding each other. Cat owners may view a cat’s need to scratch their furniture and carpets as a problem behavior that must be punished, but asking a cat to stop this instinctive and beneficial activity is an unrealistic expectation, and could harm the cat’s wellbeing. 

Savvy cat owners who wish for household harmony should aim to redirect this natural behavior into healthy and safe outlets. The Providence Vet team shares our expertise on why this behavior is so important to your cat and how you can train them to scratch their own belongings instead of yours.

Why do cats scratch?

Scratching is a natural feline behavior that has several therapeutic and social benefits carried over from ancestors, and an indoor cat is forced to view furniture and carpet as a tree trunk or other outdoor surface. Cats may scratch for the following reasons:

  • Marking — Scratching is an important communication strategy that shares a visual and chemical message. The cat leaves claw marks and pheromones from their foot scent glands at their eye level as clear territorial markers and to provide other cats with information about their health and breeding status.
  • Claw maintenance — Scratching helps to remove old nail husks to reveal sharp, new points underneath and to continuously sharpen the existing nail.
  • Stretching — Scratching is a stretching and muscle-strengthening activity important for maintaining health.
  • Stress relief — Scratching releases feel-good hormones in a cat’s brain, helping them to cope with daily stressors and relieve ongoing anxiety.

How to redirect undesirable scratching behavior

Vertical home surfaces, such as the side of a couch, furniture legs, or stairs, are ideal locations for cats to mark their territory. They want their messages seen—and smelled—so they place them in high-traffic home areas. They may also choose to scratch carpet or another sturdy, horizontal surface when they need claw maintenance or anxiety relief. The key to ensuring your cat’s health and wellbeing while also protecting the nice things in your home is redirecting this behavior to items designated specifically for scratching.

Purchase multiple scratching post options with different textures for your cat to test. Place the posts near the areas your cat has already chosen for scratching and entice them to use the post by playing or sprinkling catnip nearby. Reward your cat with treats, play, or something else they enjoy each time you see them scratch an appropriate item. 

Avoid punishment if your cat is scratching an unacceptable object, because this will increase their anxiety and possibly worsen the problem. Instead, spray feline facial pheromones, such as the Feliway brand, directly on the item to trick your cat into thinking they had already marked that spot, and by using mild deterrents like furniture-safe double-sided tape that feels unpleasant on your cat’s feet. You can also keep your cat’s nails trimmed short or use nail caps as a temporary solution as you work through the training process.

Is anxiety contributing to your cat’s scratching?

If you’ve tried to positively redirect your cat’s scratching behavior, but they still scratch excessively around your home, anxiety or stress could be the major contributor. Common cat stressors include competition with other pets for resources, boredom, frustration during play, household changes or visitors, and seeing or smelling outdoor or feral cats nearby. We suggest that you schedule a visit with our Providence Vet team to rule out a medical problem, and then work with us or a qualified professional behaviorist to resolve the issue.

The argument against declawing cats

Declawing cats was routine practice for many years to prevent problematic scratching, and some advocates still believe the practice is beneficial because more cats find homes. However, declawing is an invasive, painful procedure where the bones at the end of each toe are amputated, which changes how a cat moves and walks and can cause long-term tendon and muscle problems. Research shows that declawed cats may also develop behavior problems related to short or long-term pain or frustration.

Except when a cat scratch could harm an elderly or immunocompromised owner, declawing should be considered a last resort, and is now illegal in several states and cities. Instead, providing appropriate surfaces to encourage healthy scratching, training your cat, and ensuring a low-stress lifestyle will resolve problem scratching in most cases, and allow humans and cats to live harmoniously together. 

Enriching your cat’s environment, decreasing their stressors, and training them to use their own scratching posts and items will help protect your furniture and bring harmony to your home without resorting to drastic measures like declawing. Cats who continue to scratch excessively despite appropriate interventions may suffer from an underlying medical issue, which can contribute to anxiety and behavior concerns.

Schedule a visit with our Providence Vet team to ensure your cat is healthy, and to discuss additional ways our team can help you address your cat’s problem behavior.