Scratch This Not That: Advice From A Cat Behaviorist by Layla Morgan Wilde (updated May 2020).
Cats need to scratch surfaces to keep their nails sharp and in good condition. It’s nature’s way of helping cats shed their claw’s older, outer layers, but scratching is also good exercise and feels good. Scratching acts as a vital means of communication. Every time a cat scratches a piece of carpet, furniture, tree trunk or scratching post, they leave scent messages from scent glands located between the pads of their feet. These messages leave visible clues from scratches but most messages are invisible to us. They are usually saying, “This is mine. I was here. Stay away or hello.”
One of the common problems I’ve seen as a behaviorist is destructive behavior resulting in damaged or ruined furniture, carpet, kitchen cabinet corners or doors, plants and window coverings. The cat has done nothing wrong. They aren’t “bad” cats, they simply haven’t been given scratching posts or surfaces of their own that they like.
It’s a dream come true. Odin loves climbing this tree with vines.
I take my cues from observing what cats do naturally outdoors and apply it to cats indoors. I’m often asked what is the best scratching pots. My answer is, “The one your cat will use.” Outdoors, cats generally like to scratch vertically at a height making it easy for other cats to sniff as they pass by.
Many cat prefer scratching horizontally but if given a choice most will choose having an option of directions.
Texture is very important to a cat. If a cat loves shredding the carpet on your stairs, a scratching post with similar carpet will appeal. If your cat is a cardboard box lover, they’ll enjoy cardboard style scratchers which come in gazillion styles these days. They’re great but not as long lasting as the more natural and stronger sisal which is made from rope (usually hemp).
Design and color choices mean nothing to a cat. You can choice what suits your eyes and decor because cats don’t see colors as we do. They tend to see everything more muted and gray. Red, orange, rusty or brown tones are seen as gray. They perceive blue and yellow colors the most vibrantly. With so many choices on the market these days, there are scratching posts/trees etc. for every taste and budget.
The most important things to a cat are: location of their food, cat litter, scratching post, toys and bed/napping spots. Encouraging use of a new scratching post/toy is contingent on location, location, location. Cat like variety. A scratching object to a cat is as important as your favorite chair or sofa. To encourage its use and NOT your sofa, I suggest these tips:
1) Place in scratching posts in multiple locations. Place smaller ones near current scratching places. Place a larger one or kitty condo scratching combo away from heavy traffic areas or noisy locations. Placement near windows where they can have a view is usually good. Sociable kitties who like being near humans will enjoy having it near a TV viewing area or home office computer.
2) Scent transfer your cat scent by wiping an unscented rag over your cat head, paws and wiping it on the new scratching post. Never throw away an old scratching post before a new one is “broken in”. If possible, cut bits of the old heavily used (super scented) carpet/sisal and place onto the new one.
3) For cats who like catnip, sprinkle some on the new scratching post. Use a wand type toy and dangle it near the post to encourage play. Include all the different scratching posts and pads as part of regular play sessions until it becomes their new habit.
4) Reward a cat’s successful use of their new post with with praise and treats.
5) The correct vertical height is high enough that kitty can stand up on their haunches and extend their legs and claws fully.
6) If you decide to try a natural tree stump or branch, make sure it’s dead with no bugs. Do not use fresh evergreen trees. Their sap is toxic.
What is your cat’s favorite place to scratch?