Feline Scratching Behavior

By: Erin Dresner, DVM, MS, DABVP

TVMA Member
The Woodlands, TX.

Published September 2016

Feline Scratching Behavior

Cats are magnificent animals with enviable skills and resources that allow them to hunt efficiently, escape predators and survive in a variety of climates and landscapes. The combination of unique sensory and anatomic adaptations simplifies life as a cat, whether at home among the wilds of the forest or snuggled up in bed next to you. Cat claws are a keen example of the offerings included within this advantageous toolbox.

Claw Anatomy

Most cats are equipped with five claws on the front paws and four on the hind. Polydactyl cats may have additional claws associated with their extra digits. The claw is made of keratina fibrous protein forming the main structural constituent of hair, feathers, hoofs, claws, horns, etc., much like our own fingernails. Unlike our fingernails, which grow from flesh, cat claws grow directly from the bone at the tip of the digit. This bone is called the distal phalanx (P3). The claw and P3 are held in place by a network of tendons that connect bone to muscle and ligaments that connect bones to other bones. These tendons and ligaments engineer the position of the claw while cats walk, climb and hunt.

Scratching Behavior

As with any important tool, maintenance is key. Cats maintain their claws by scratching, an innate and learned behavior. Scratching helps shed the outermost layer of keratin, which sharpens the claw. In addition to claw upkeep, scratching promotes stretching of various muscle groups throughout the body. Structures associated with the paws receive excellent benefits from scratching as the behavior provides the range of motion necessary to preserve paw function throughout your cat’s life.

Finally, scratching facilitates communication among cats as a method of olfactoryof or relating to the sense of smell and visual marking. Scratching is a normal and healthy feline behavior, making it part and parcel to inviting a cat to share your home. Given that the behavior is innate, we are unlikely to eradicate it from our cats’ way of life. However, because the behavior is also learned, there are techniques that can redirect this behavior to preferred areas of the home.

Redirecting Scratching Behavior

First, trimming the claws short reduces the need for upkeep, which decreases scratching behavior. Trim your cat’s claws every one to two weeks. Your veterinarian is happy to demonstrate safe claw-trimming techniques or trim the claws for you.

Temporary vinyl claw caps may also be considered. These are applied over the claw with glue and must be changed every four to six weeks. Your veterinarian is happy to help you select from the many available brands and sizes as well as demonstrate their application.

Once the claws are addressed with trimming and/or claw caps, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends the following the steps to redirect your cat’s scratching to preferred areas:

  • Supplement these measures with feline enrichment activities because some scratching behavior may be associated with anxiety or boredom. Diffusers filled with synthetic feline facial pheromone products may be placed in strategic locations. Remember to provide your cat with activities or food puzzles throughout the day. The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine’s Indoor Cat Initiative offers an array of enrichment ideas: https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats/basic-indoor-cat-needs.
  • Supply a number of alternate surfaces you would like your cat to scratch. An assortment of substrate options should be offered, such as scratching posts or stations made of carpet, cardboard, pine lumber or sisal. Both vertical and horizontal surfaces should be available. Surfaces should be fixed and not move when your cat uses them. Additionally, surfaces should be large enough to allow deep stretching of the entire body. Surfaces may be sprayed with catnip oil or synthetic feline facial pheromones to attract your cat’s attention.
  • Apply pet-safe citrus-scented spray to the surfaces. Citrus scents are a natural feline repellant. Avoid commercial scratching repellants that contain garlic or onion as these ingredients are potentially toxic.
  • Place double-sided tape on the surfaces where you do not want scratching to occur. Several brands of furniture-safe tape are available. The sticky sensation interferes with a satisfying scratching session.
  • Initially, place the alternate surfaces near the areas that your cat is scratching without your permission. If your cat attempts to scratch the undesired surfaces, the alternate scratching surfaces will be right there, ready to satisfy your cat’s instinct to scratch. This will foster a positive association with the alternative, desired scratching surface. Over a period of several days, slowly move the preferred scratching surfaces to their more aesthetically pleasing locations in your home. In some cases, the move must occur inch by inch over a few weeks.
  • Finally, refrain from punishing your cat for scratching in undesirable places. Punishment will likely add to your cat’s anxiety, which may actually increase scratching behavior. If you catch your cat scratching an area you do not approve, redirect your cat’s attention by scratching the alternative surface with your own nails, mimicking the motions of your cat. Additionally, you may gently remove your cat from the surface it is scratching and place it in front of the appropriate surface. Reward your cat with a treat, petting or praise when it successfully scratches in the desired location.

A Word on Declawing

The American Association of Feline Practitioners strongly encourages veterinarians to offer alternatives to the elective removal of claws (declawing or onychectomy). Onychectomy is surgical amputation of the distal phalanx (P3) of the digit. Possible short-term complications of this procedure include acute pain, hemorrhage, infection and neuropathy. Possible long-term complications of declaw include chronic pain, lameness, chronic infection, claw regrowth secondary to incomplete amputation of P3 and behavior changes. Declawing is at best a method of last resort when the only other options are abandonment or euthanasia. The risk of complications increases with the age of the patient. Veterinarians are obligated to help their clients make an informed decision regarding the declawing procedure. Elective declawing has become an ethical dilemma for the veterinary community given the potential complications associated with the procedure. All options should be discussed with your veterinarian to find the best solution when addressing feline scratching behavior.

Erin Dresner, DVM, MS, DABVP-Feline Practice, is a graduate of Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Dresner practices at Just Cats Veterinary Services in The Woodlands, Texas.