Why Do Cats Scratch?

As a cat parent, you’ve undoubtedly noticed your feline companion’s enthusiastic propensity for scratching. Whether they’re sinking their claws into your brand-new Pottery Barn sofa or your wicker bed frame, cats are naturally inclined to scratch a variety of surfaces. And of course, this begs the question: why do cats scratch?

Read on to get the scoop on cat scratching.

Why Do Cats Scratch?

While scratching might seem like a destructive habit to humans, rest assured your cat isn’t doing it to vex you. In fact, one survey found that 84 percent of cats scratch inappropriate items (chairs, furniture, carpets, etc.), making this a widespread concern for many cat parents. [1] 

While this behavior can be destructive and frustrating, scratching is a natural instinct for cats and serves multiple vital functions in their lives, explains Samantha Bell, cat behavior expert at Best Friends Animal Society. This instinct is so strong that trying to eliminate scratching completely is not only unrealistic but also unfair to the cat. 

Your goal shouldn’t be to stop your cat from scratching in general, but rather to train them to only scratch their scratching posts and other designated scratching areas. We’ll cover ways to encourage appropriate scratching shortly, but first, let’s explore some cat scratching basics. 

So, why do they do it? Here are the key reasons: 

Marking territory 

Cats are territorial creatures by nature, and scratching serves as a dual method for marking territory. “In the wild, big cats make deep scratch marks on trees along the perimeter of their territory to provide a visual signal to other cats that this area belongs to them,” says Bell. 

Additionally, the scent glands in their paw pads release pheromones during scratching, leaving an olfactory marker that serves as a “no trespassing” sign to other animals.

“Our domestic cats have these same instincts and want to feel like they ‘own’ territory in their home,” says Bell. This is one reason cats tend to scratch various items in their humans’ houses. 

Claw maintenance 

Just as humans trim their nails, cats need to maintain their claws. “Scratching gets rid of the dead sheaths on cats’ nails,” says Bell. Shedding this outer layer of the claw reveals a sharper, healthier claw underneath. 

Having sharp, well-maintained claws helps with a cat’s day-to-day activities, including climbing, hunting, or gripping onto surfaces.

Stretching and exercise 

Scratching is an effective form of stretching for cats, akin to the feline version of yoga. “When cats scratch, they engage their front leg muscles to dig into surfaces and their back leg muscles to push,” says Bell. By reaching up as far as they can, they also release muscle tension in their back and shoulders. 

When done vigorously, scratching can even serve as exercise, as it activates various muscle groups, elevates heart rate and burns calories, says Bell. 

Stress relief and emotional expression 

Scratching can serve as a healthy outlet for stress relief. Just like humans may go for a run or hit a punching bag when they’re feeling tense, cats may resort to scratching to release built-up stress. 

“Scratching is used to express excitement or frustration,” says Bell. “It’s like how kids jump up and down when excited.” This is why your cat might excitedly run to their scratching post to scratch while you’re preparing their food or when you come home.

Why Do Cats Scratch Furniture? 

Have you ever wondered why your cat uses your stylish couch as their personal scratching post? Understanding the following reasons can offer insights into why your furniture often becomes the target for those feline claws.

Sturdiness   

“In the wild, cats scratch on trees which are tall [and] sturdy, and won’t move or tip over, even if they put all their weight on them,” says Bell. 

Unfortunately, many commercially available scratching posts fail to meet these critical criteria. They often lack the height for a cat to fully extend their body and may wobble under the intensity of a spirited scratch. This drives cats to seek alternatives like furniture, which mimics the tall and sturdy characteristics of a tree in the wild, Bell explains.

Convenience and accessibility 

Furniture, like couches and chairs, tend to be centrally located in homes, making them easy targets for a cat looking to engage in a quick scratching session. They’re convenient, readily available, and often at the perfect height for a cat to stand on their hind legs and stretch while scratching. 

Territorial marking 

SImilar to the way big cats mark in the wild, when your cat scratches your furniture, they’re physically marking it and leaving behind an olfactory signature. This signals to other cats and animals that this piece of furniture – and by extension, the surrounding area — is claimed territory.

Attention-seeking behavior 

Cats quickly learn that certain actions will result in specific reactions from their human companions. If scratching the couch makes you get up and interact with them — even if it’s just to shoo them away — your cat may continue to do it to get your attention.  

Why Do Cats Scratch People? 

“The reasons behind cats scratching people are very different from why they scratch furniture,” says Bell. Let’s review the most common reasons:

Defensive behavior

Cats might scratch people if they feel cornered, threatened or unsafe. This is a defensive behavior intended to protect themselves from a perceived threat. It’s always essential to approach cats — especially unfamiliar ones — slowly and cautiously to avoid triggering their defensive instincts.

Playfulness and overstimulation

Cats, especially younger ones, have a strong play drive, and they often use their paws and claws as tools for exploration and play. Young cats might not yet understand how to regulate their claw use, leading to scratches. Similarly, adult cats can become overstimulated during play and might scratch as a result. 

Anxiety or stress

Just like humans, cats can act out when they’re feeling anxious or stressed. If you notice a sudden change in your cat’s behavior, including increased scratching, it may be worth investigating any changes in their environment or routine that could be causing stress.

Accidental

Sometimes, scratching is purely accidental. Your cat might be trying to leap from your lap but uses too much claw in the push-off, or they may be aiming for a toy and miss. 

How to Stop a Cat from Scratching Furniture (or Other Inappropriate Items)

While scratching is a natural and essential behavior for cats, that doesn’t mean your furniture has to be the sacrificial offering. Here are some ways to guide your cat away from the furniture and toward their designated scratching posts and pads.  

Provide alternatives 

The most effective way to keep your cat from scratching your furniture is to offer them more appealing alternatives. A high-quality cat scratching post, cat scratching pad, or cat tree with built-in scratching areas can give your feline friend a designated place to fulfill their scratching needs. 

Place the cat scratchers near the furniture your cat tends to scratch. This way, they’ll be more likely to choose the post or pad over the furniture when they feel the urge to scratch. 

Remember that scratching serves as a way for cats to mark their territory. For this reason, it’s also important to place scratching posts and other scratching surfaces in rooms your cat frequently occupies, like the living room and bedroom. 

Use positive reinforcement 

When your cat uses their scratching post or another appropriate surface, offer praise, affection, treats, or playtime as a reward. Positive reinforcement can be highly effective in shaping your cat’s behavior. 

If your cat starts scratching an inappropriate object, gently interrupt and redirect them to their designated scratching post. You can even place a treat or toy near the post to encourage usage. 

Once they make the switch, immediately reward them to reinforce the positive behavior. This combination of interruption, redirection, and positive reinforcement can help train your cat to scratch only where it’s acceptable.

Add scratching pads to furniture 

Using a furniture scratching pad can be an effective compromise between preserving your furniture and allowing your cat to engage in their natural scratching behavior. 

By attaching a scratching pad directly to their favorite scratching spots on the furniture, you offer a designated area for them to scratch without damaging your belongings. 

Over time, you can gradually shift the pad closer to a more appropriate scratching area, using positive reinforcement to encourage this behavior. 

Regularly trim claws 

While it won’t stop your cat from scratching, keeping their claws trimmed will reduce the amount of damage they can do. If you’re unsure how to do this safely, your veterinarian or a professional groomer can help.

Consult a cat behaviorist 

If you’ve exhausted various strategies and your cat continues to scratch furniture or other inappropriate areas, it may be time to consult a cat behaviorist. Although scratching is a natural behavior, persistent issues may signify heightened stress levels or deeply ingrained habits that could necessitate professional advice. 

Cat Scratching: Other Tips and Advice

As we conclude, let’s explore some additional tips that will come in handy for managing your cat’s scratching behavior:

Never punish your cat for scratching

It’s crucial to remember that scratching is a natural, instinctive behavior for cats. Punishing your cat (including spraying them with water) for doing what comes naturally can confuse them and damage the trust between you. Instead, focus on redirecting their behavior to appropriate spots. 

Rotate scratching toys and surfaces

Like humans, cats can get bored with the same old thing. Keep your kitty’s interest piqued by rotating their scratching toys. This variety will also allow you to figure out which materials and types of scratchers your cat prefers.

Invest in quality scratching posts

Not all scratching posts are created equal. Invest in high-quality posts made from materials that are attractive to cats and will withstand their clawing. The post should be tall enough for your cat to fully stretch and stable enough to bear their weight without tipping over.

Consistency is key

When training your cat to use a scratching post or pad, consistency is essential. Always reward good behavior and gently redirect them when they scratch inappropriately. Use the same type of reward — whether it’s a treat, verbal praise, or a quick play session — to reinforce the behavior you want to see. 

Remember, the aim isn’t to eliminate scratching, but to direct it in a way that suits both feline and human members of the household. With understanding, patience, and consistent effort, you can achieve a peaceful coexistence that respects your cat’s natural instincts and your furniture. 

Reference:

  1. Moesta A, Keys D, Crowell-Davis S. “Survey of cat owners on features of, and preventative measures for, feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study.” J Feline Med Surg. (2018 Oct) (10):891-899. doi: 10.1177/1098612X17733185. Epub (2017 October). PMID: 29082814.

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