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Nothing Like a Good Scratch

Scratching is high on the list of destructive activities that will get a cat tossed out of the house if she’s scratching the wrong things. But she thinks they are the right things, and she has her reasons. She stubbornly returns to the things you don’t want her to scratch, and pays no attention to the nice scratcher you went out and got for her. Why?

Cats are stubbornly attached to their biological beginnings. They are both predator and prey, and recognize their part in their community of living things, even though they now live indoors with us, and this, I’ve found, helps interpret a lot of cat things.

Even though we provide a safe shelter for them cats still maintain a territory. They perform regular daily activities such as how and where they eat, regular bathing, sleeping habits and places, and even play, along parameters determined by their ancestral biology. And while scratching things may seem more like play, it’s really an integral step in necessary daily activity for health and well-being.

So cats are not only going to keep scratching things, they are supposed to. You’re not going to get your cat to stop scratching the things you don’t want her to scratch until you understand why cats in general need to scratch things, and then what your cat wants to scratch and why.

A few elements of biological behaviour

Okay, we provide food and safe shelter, and we spay and neuter them so they don’t have to defend themselves, kill for dinner or fight over each other or raise kittens, but they still sometimes follow the behaviour of an intact, unowned outdoor cat? Yes, their nature demands it. Here are some of the basics of what they do each day:

  • ensure their safety within their territory by checking and marking items with scent and claws, and so they can eat, sleep, use the litter box and just exist without fear of a predator

  • keep themselves and their environment clean to not attract predators

  • exercise and practice to be ready to crouch, chase, pounce and kill in an instant whenever a potential meal presents itself

  • rest an adequate amount to prepare their body for the stresses of hunting, fighting, mating and escaping danger

That’s a pretty busy daily schedule of things their instinct is telling them to do. In each of those four sets of activities we can find a reason for scratching.

  • to mark a place and communicate to the creatures in their territory using both the physical marks of their claws and the scent from their paws

  • to clean old layers of sheath from their claws so they are sharpest when needed\

  • to exercise and stretch their entire body, staying strong and limber

  • to relax before resting, or warm up after resting

In multiple cat households scratching takes on a new dimension when each cat may have its own favourite scratching spot along with common spots because scratching is communication - one cat leaves a mark and scent for the next cat to find. Having a place to scratch and/or climb also helps relieve the occasional stress of close interactions with one or more other cats.

Interpreting that behavior for type and placement of scratching items

Each of the activities indicates a potentially different type of scratching: vertical, horizontal, digging claws in and possibly climbing, rubbing paw pads on a surface, warming up muscles. cleaning up. Watch your cat’s behaviour in each incidence of scratching and analyze the need for scratching in that situation, find an acceptable substitute for the item being scratched if it’s not appropriate, and convince your cat to change over to it if you need to. If you get a scratching item that doesn’t match their need to scratch in that area, or you put it somewhere else hoping they’ll use it there, you won’t really be providing a substitute, and they won’t use it.

For instance, cats scratch things along a path they walk, kind of like the way we mark trees along a trail - basically, the marks guide us and let others know someone else has been there, plus cats add the scent from their paw pads. They can continue to see the marks, and the scent of their particular pheromone and that of other known cats comforts them with its familiarity.

That spot may have been the arm of your couch as she walks past it along a path she regularly travels through your home. That’s a vertical scratch so get a scratcher that’s at least as high as the arm of the couch with a sturdy base and place it right where she was scratching. Cats love to scratch and climb trees, and an imitation of the rough surface of the bark is one of the things to provide in her scratcher, usually sisal rope or the edges of corrugated cardboard. You can place double-stick tape over the area where she liked to scratch so it’s less appealing and make the scratcher more appealing with catnip, toys tied to it, or interacting with her and the post so she has a positive association with it.

Later, she might dig her claws into a rug outside your bedroom door when she’s about to go in and have an afternoon nap on the bed. That’s a horizontal scratch and she’s having a good stretch to relax her back and neck and legs before she has a bath and then curls up for a nap. A flat scratcher of some sort would be good to have right in the spot where she’s been scratching and encourage her to use it.


Your cat is going to scratch things. Understand and anticipate this, don’t punish scratching the wrong thing or react in any way that gives attention, instead reward positive behaviour. Find what your cat likes and give it to her and chances are you’ll get along fine.

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