One of the most common behavioral problems seen in the cat is the scratching of furniture, draperies, and other household items. Although scratching is a natural behavior that helps the cat keep its claws conditioned and to mark its territory through scent glands on the feet, it can be a very destructive habit. Most cats seem to learn easily that their scratching post is for scratching and that other items in the home are “off limits.” A few cats, however, are persistent in their desire to scratch inappropriate items. For the cat owner faced with this problem, there are a few options to consider, namely behavioral conditioning, nail caps, and surgery.
Behavioral Conditioning: If a cat does not have a scratching problem, you may be able to prevent one from developing. Keep the claws trimmed and teach your cat to keep its claws retracted by discouraging it from jumping on dragged clothing, shoelaces, pant legs, etc. These rules have to be consistent. If a cat is not allowed to use its claws on any of these types of items, it may not develop inappropriate scratching behavior.
Next, teach the cat to use a scratching post. This should be made from fabric, hemp, or sandpaper. Commercially available cardboard scratching boxes are available. Scratch-feeder devices can also be purchased which release a treat when the cat scratches it. If there is sufficient room, even a dead tree stump can be brought indoors for the cat to scratch on. If it doesn’t take to the post right away, gently pull the cat’s paws over the surface so the cat knows this is acceptable behavior. While doing this, you should praise the cat and even offer a food treat. If your cat has already demonstrated a preference for scratching a particular type of material or fabric, cover the scratching post with that material and follow the same training steps mentioned above. This will not teach the cat to scratch everything in the house with this material, but it will teach it to scratch in a specific location. Also, if your cat has shown other preferences for specific characteristics in a scratching area, try to mimic those things for the cat (e.g., dark or light, secluded or open, flat or vertical scratching post, etc.). With an appealing scratching post in an appealing scratching area coupled with proper reinforcement, most cats should switch to the appropriate scratching area.
If your cat still continues to scratch where you do not want it to, then additional measures will need to be taken. To monitor your cat’s location, a bell can be attached to its collar. When the cat is seen or heard in an area where it has been inappropriately scratching, you should startle it by speaking sharply to it, using an air horn, air canister, fog horn, or water pistol. Motion-sensing spray/alarm devices are also available. Startling should occur a few seconds after scratching begins or within 60 seconds of the onset of behaviors that lead to scratching (e.g., lowering the head, sniffing, rubbing). The mildest stimulus that causes the cat to abort the behavior and leave the area should be used. It is also important that you “punish” the cat secretively so that the aversion it develops is to the area in which it was scratching rather than to you. Therefore, try not to let the cat see you shoot the water pistol or sound the air horn, etc.
If your cat scratches the inappropriate area only when you are away, try restricting the cat’s access to the area during such times by closing the door, using removable indoor gates, or some other method. If this is not possible, then placing booby traps in the inappropriate scratching area may work. Such items as small, inflated balloons could be attached to the inappropriate scratching area and when scratched, will pop and startle the cat without causing pain or injury.
Nail Caps: Nail caps are rubber caps with dull, rounded tips which are applied to the nails with an adhesive after the nails have been trimmed. This option can be used to protect furniture and draperies while behavioral conditioning is in progress or as a permanent solution if behavioral conditioning fails. Nail caps need to be replaced periodically (usually every one to two months) because they either fall off eventually or the covered nail continues to grow and needs trimming again. The use of nail caps is painless for the cat and works well in cats that permit themselves to be restrained for the few minutes required to apply the caps. In a cat that is fractious, however, the use of general anesthesia may be needed, making nail caps a less favorable option.
Surgery: The main surgical option is declawing (i.e., onychectomy). Declawing is the permanent removal of the claws and the bone of the toes from which the claws grow. Although declawing does require the use of general anesthesia, involves an average hospital stay of two days, and sometimes produces temporary discomfort for the cat, the discomfort usually only lasts a few days and can be managed by the use of analgesic drugs (i.e., “painkillers”). The advantage of declawing is the permanent solution it provides with no nail trimming or other maintenance required. Before opting for a surgical solution, a thorough attempt at behavioral conditioning should be tried.
Many owners of cats with scratching behavior problems feel that the only option they have is to give up their cats and place them in another home or to never let such a cat come indoors. Fortunately, there are alternatives (i.e., behavioral conditioning, nails caps, or surgery) which will enable most of these owners to keep their cats.