Scratching is an appropriate behavior for cats, but you likely have trouble appreciating your cat’s natural instincts when they are shredding your sofa.

This month, the Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center team is opening the Nail File, to make a case for encouraging and cultivating  feline scratching behaviors. We present tips for redirecting your cat’s claws to designated scratching areas.

Why do cat’s scratch?

Cats get a bad rap for being vindictive and spiteful, but these anthropomorphisms (i.e., assigning human emotions to animal behavior) are inaccurate and often harm the pet-owner relationship.

Your cat’s scratching is not motivated by revenge or malice, but by their basic needs, including:

  • Communication — When cats scratch, they leave visual and olfactory reminders (i.e., pheromones) of their presence. Together, these displays are used to claim territory and convey information to other cats.
  • Grooming — Scratching helps cats shed their outer nail layer and maintain claw health. Retained layers can irritate your cat and inhibit timely growth.
  • Stretching — Cats are naturally limber, and the vertical, full-body stretch they use when scratching opens up their spine from neck to tail and helps improve range of motion.
  • Exercise — Scratching helps cats burn excess energy.
  • Scratching — Cats find expressing natural behaviors intrinsically rewarding, and scratching may help alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with indoor-only lifestyle.

Why is my cat scratching everything, including me?

First, to be fair, you must remember that domestic cats are living in a human world, and our sense of propriety is lost on them. In the wild, cats use their claws to climb, defend themselves, communicate, play, and catch and manipulate prey. But, inside a human home, they’re expected to always keep their claws retracted and their paws to themselves.

While some scratching is normal, excessive scratching, or a sudden increase in the amount of scratching, can be motivated by an underlying problem, such as increased stress, anxiety, frustration, or fear. If your cat’s scratching has suddenly intensified, consider whether their home environment or routine has changed and consult with your regular veterinarian.

How do I redirect my cat’s inappropriate scratching?

After you’ve identified and eliminated any stressors, focus on redirecting your cat’s scratching behavior to a designated area or surface. Your training plan should include:

  • Learning your cat’s preferences — Cats are individuals who prefer different textures, materials, or surfaces. Try out several scratching posts and mats to determine the type your cat most enjoys.
  • Selecting the best locations — Cats like to scratch after they wake up, during play, after using the litter box, and when they’re aroused or frustrated. Position your cat’s scratching stations near their food bowl, play area, litter box, and near a window or door if they enjoy watching outdoor activities or wildlife.
  • Providing sufficient scratching resources — If you have more than one cat, ensure each cat has  a scratching station, and add one additional station.
  • Encouraging toy play — Wiggling your fingers or toes at your cat to initiate play can encourage swatting—but may be painful for you. 
  • Attracting your cat to the area — Feliscratch is a clinically proven cat attractant that can teach your cat where to scratch. Simply apply the product as directed to the desired scratching post or mat.
  • Praising your cat for correct behavior — Reward appropriate scratching by praising your cat or giving them a tasty treat. 

Do I still need to trim my cat’s nails?

Regular scratching helps maintain your cat’s nail health, but doesn’t keep the nails short or soften their razor-like points. Cats’ nails need routine trimming to shorten the length, minimize scratch-related damage, and to prevent your cat from getting hung up on your favorite sweater. 

Your cat’s nail-trimming frequency will depend on their age and activity level, but you should expect to trim nails at least every three to four weeks. Invest in cat-specific nail trimmers, which are easier to hold and control when clipping the nail. If your cat is squirmy or sensitive about paw-handling, focus on trimming only one or two nails per session. Reward your cat with treats and praise to create a positive association with the task.

Your primary veterinarian can provide one-on-one assistance or demonstrate nail trimming to build your confidence and skill.

Scratching may seem like a needlessly destructive behavior, but we hope that understanding your cat’s motivations will help you tear through the misunderstandings and allow them to use their claws in a healthy and appropriate manner.

If your cat needs emergency or specialty care, Southern Arizona Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center provides unparalleled expertise, advanced technology, and an unending love for pets and their people. Contact our team to discuss your cat’s needs—especially if you need to redirect their scratching.