Teaching Your Cat to Scratch Appropriately

Declawing is never an acceptable option for a cat that loves and depends on you. Declawing is a mistake that often leads to irreversible physical pain and psychological distress — both of which can cause behavioral problems. It’s a mistake to think that declawing is trivial, such as trimming claws. A cat’s claws are a vital part of its anatomy — essential to balance, mobility, and survival. Claws are also essential to a cat’s psychological wellbeing.

What Is Declawing?

Declawing is irreversible surgery that means amputating the last joint of your cat’s “toes.” Declawing is very painful and comes with a strong potential for secondary complications. Imagine having the last joint of your own fingers and toes amputated!

What Are the Effects of Declawing?

Physical Pain

Declawing means you’ve amputated the last joint of your cat’s toes. Your cat must now compensate by placing more weight on their hindquarters, causing them to be out of balance. This can lead to atrophy in the front quarters. Many cats also feel lifelong pain in their paws because amputation means cutting into the joint and nerve endings.

Psychological Distress

Cats’ front claws are also their primary means of defense. You may say, “My cat never goes outside,” but what if your cat accidentally gets outside? Even if your cat doesn’t get outside, they may still feel defenseless, causing psychological distress.

Behavioral Problems

Some cats develop an aversion to their litter box because of the pain associated with scratching in the litter after declawing. If your cat avoids the litter box to avoid pain, they will find a more comfortable place to do their business, such as a nice quiet corner in your bedroom. Cats also tend to display distress by urinating on your favorite rug or spraying your antique armoire. And, feeling defenseless without claws, your cat may become hostile to you, other people, and to other pets. This often causes cats to become biters.

Teaching Your Cat How to Scratch Appropriately

Scratching Is a Natural and Necessary Behavior for Cats

This may not be a revelation, but it’s important for you to realize and accept that scratching is natural and necessary for cats. Understanding your cat’s need to scratch is more than just an act of charity. It’s the key to channeling your cat’s scratching to acceptable things.

Why Do Cats Scratch?

Marking Territory. Scratching is a territorial instinct by which cats “mark their turf.” Through scratching, cats mark their domains with more than just visible signs of claw marks. Cats’ paws also have scent glands that leave their scent on their territory. This is why they mark the most visible portions of your house.

Exercise. Scratching helps keep your cat in shape! It stretches and pulls the muscles of a cat’s front quarters — a blend of a kitty gym workout and kitty yoga.

Sheer Pleasure. It feels good to scratch. So, give up the idea of reforming your cat’s desire to scratch. Re-channel their scratching to where you want them to scratch.

You Can’t Stop Your Cat from Scratching – So Don’t Waste Your Time!

You can’t make cats do anything they don’t want to do. And getting cats to stop something they enjoy is even more difficult. Therefore, you have to think smart and re-channel their desires.

A word about punishment – don’t do it! Cats don’t understand punishment. It doesn’t work and is likely to make your situation worse. Clever though your cat may be about many things, they won’t understand that you’re punishing them for scratching the couch. The cat will only understand that sometimes you treat them badly. This may make the cat insecure and cause them to scratch more or develop other undesirable behaviors. 

Provide Your Cat with Several “Appropriate” Things to Scratch On

Keep in mind that your idea of desirable and your cat’s may not coincide. Most cats like rough surfaces they can shred. Some cats like to scratch vertically, others horizontally, and some demand both.

Whatever you choose, the important thing is that it’s secure. If it topples over even once, a cat won’t go back for more! If you use a post, make sure it’s tall enough for your cat to fully extend their body. Sisal scratching posts or the reverse side of a rug provides good, satisfying resistant textures for clawing. And, don’t throw it away when it is shredded — your cat may like it that way!

Get Your Cat to Prefer a Scratching Board or Scratching Post

Remember that an important part of scratching is the cat’s desire to mark territory. A scratching post or board should be located in areas used by the cat and the family, not hidden in a back corner. Initially, put the post or board where your cat goes to scratch. This may be near a sofa, a chair, or wherever your cat has chosen as their territory. Also, you need more than one post or board to cover all favorite spots.

Positive reinforcement. Encourage your cat to use the posts with clever enticements. Feed them and play with them by the post. Rub dried catnip or catnip spray into it. Make all associations with the post pleasurable. Reward your cat with a favorite treat when they use it. Have them chase a string or a toy around the post or attach toys to it, which will result in them digging their claws into it. It’s also a good idea to put a post where your cat sleeps. Cats like to scratch when they awaken. If space permits, a scratching post in every room is a cat’s delight. The most important place is the area of the house in which you and your cat spend the most time.

Careful deterrents. If your cat is reluctant to give up old scratching areas, try carefully discouraging them from using them. For example, covering the area with aluminum foil, plastic, or double-sided tape are great deterrents. These surfaces don’t have a texture that feels good to scratch.

Remember, too, that your cat has marked favorite spots with their scent as well as claws. You may need to remove your cat’s scent from the areas from which you want to distract them away. You will find pet odor removers in pet stores or supermarkets. Or use citrus-scented sprays to make former scratching sites less agreeable. Cats have an aversion to citrus odors.

Although often less effective, if your cat still persists in scratching the furniture, you can try actual deterrents — but use deterrents cautiously and sparingly. Otherwise, they won’t work! One option is some type of noisemaker. You must use this while your cat is scratching and not looking at you so they associate the sound with the scratching and not with you. Also, cat’s ears are very sensitive. So, please don’t use a blow-horn or anything that could hurt their ears.

Another option is a squirt bottle, although we don’t encourage this approach. First, you need to be careful to squirt near your cat, not at your cat. Second, using a squirt bottle can be effective only if your cat does not see you use it. Otherwise, your cat will wonder why you are squirting them and will not associate the squirt with the scratching behavior you are trying to discourage. We urge caution with this method because it’s nearly impossible to use it without your cat seeing you.

Keep your cat’s claws trimmed!

You can minimize damage of your cat’s clawing by carefully trimming the razor-sharp tips of their claws.

Approach. Rushing into a full-scale claw trimming is a foolhardy move unless you’re really into drama. As you know, cats hate to be restrained. In addition, they don’t like you fooling with their paws — which they view as threatening. After all, their claws are an important tool for survival.

This is where preparation comes to the rescue. For about a week before a manicure, begin getting your cat accustomed to having their paws handled. While petting and soothing them, start massaging their paws. Gently press on the individual pads at the base of the claws. You may want to give treats to reward them for not protesting. Make the process reassuring so that your cat will eventually feel comfortable enough to let you handle their paws without protest.

How to trim claws. Gently hold your cat’s paw in one hand. With your thumb on top of the paw and forefinger on the pad, gently squeeze your thumb and finger together. This will push the claw outward away from the fur.

The inside of the claw is pink near its base — this is the “quick” and is living tissue that you do not want to cut. Trim only the clear tip of the nail. Do not clip the area where pink tissue is visible or the slightly opaque region that outlines the pink tissue.

Also, try clipping your cat’s claws when they are sound asleep. Start by talking softly to them and petting them gently. Then slowly try clipping their claws — one claw and one paw at a time. If your cat starts protesting, stop clipping and try again later.

Finally, be patient. Don’t attempt to trim all claws at once. Trim one or two at a time, reward them with affection or food. Eventually, trimming should become a fairly routine experience.

SPCA NOVA adapted this handout from an article written by Veterinarian Dr. Christian Schilling, 1998.

Declawing is cruel and not necessary.
Scratching is a territorial instinct by which cats “mark their turf.”
Provide your cat with several “appropriate” things to scratch on.
Some cats like to scratch vertically, others horizontally, and some demand both.
If your cat is reluctant to give up old scratching areas, try carefully discouraging them from using them.
Make the claw-clipping process reassuring so that your cat will eventually feel comfortable enough to let you handle their paws without protest.
You can minimize damage of your cat’s clawing by carefully trimming the razor-sharp tips of their claws.