Natural instinct: What cat parents need to know about scratching

  • Some cats like to scratch vertically while others scratch horizontally.

    Some cats like to scratch vertically while others scratch horizontally. Associated Press File Photo

By Diana Stoll
On pets
Posted4/26/2021 6:00 AM

Cats scratch for a variety of reasons. First, it's an instinctual behavior to mark their territory. They have glands on their paws that release a scent as they scratch. Scratching also leaves claw marks in the surface -- another telltale sign they were there.

Scratching helps cats sharpen their claws. Just as they groom their fur to keep their coat clean, scratching removes the outer layer of a claw, leaving a new, healthy one underneath.


Exercising and stretching muscles is another reason. Cats may scratch after a nap to stretch, or they might "scratch" to pull themselves along a surface for exercise.

When scratching occurs outdoors, it is often not a cause of concern for pet parents. But inside, when furniture, curtains, woodwork, screens and carpet are the targets of scratching, they desperately look for solutions.

Trimming your cat's nails regularly will help. Trimmed nails cause less damage than sharp claws. If your cat is a kitten, it's easy to introduce nail trims as part of the weekly routine. It may take some patience to get older cats used to frequent nail trims. If you are uncomfortable trimming your cat's nails, your veterinarian can show you how or do it for you.

There are also soft plastic nail coverings available at pet stores that can be applied to claws. They are relatively easy to apply, but fall off with the outer coverings of claws so they will have to be regularly reapplied.

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Most pet parents prefer to offer an alternative surface for their cats to scratch. Before deciding on what to offer, observe how and where they scratch. Do they scratch most often vertically or horizontally? Do they stretch up high to scratch? Do they scratch whenever they wake up?

Scratching posts are the most common alternative. There are many models available. If the first one doesn't work as well as you had hoped, you can try another one. Some scratching posts are on a sturdy base, others attach to a wall, and some lay on the ground. There are even posts included in extravagant floor-to-ceiling jungle gyms, complete with playhouses.

If you choose a free-standing scratching post, make sure the base is heavy enough so it stays rigid when Fluffy scratches and tall enough for her stretch out to scratch. If she tends to scratch horizontally, make sure it has a horizontal area, too. Multiple cat households should have a scratching post for each cat.

If your kitty is lucky enough to have the floor-to-ceiling model, making sure it can't be tipped is the most important consideration. If it should happen to tip when she's jumping on or off, she will likely not give it a second chance. Also, cats love horizontal scratching surfaces or cat playhouses in a warm, sunny spot.


If your cat is already scratching on an undesirable surface, place the new scratching post nearby. Introduce her to it by dangling a favorite toy over it so her claws catch the scratching post incidentally. Or try rubbing some catnip on it. As she shifts her scratching to the scratching post, systematically move it away.

While encouraging your cat to use an alternative, make her current scratching spot as undesirable as possible. Cover the area with plastic or something rubbery, like a bath mat.

Never punish your cat for scratching. Instead, trim her claws regularly and/or train her to use an alternative surface for her to demonstrate her natural cat behavior.

• Diana Stoll is the Practice Manager at Red Barn Animal Hospital with locations in Hampshire and Gilberts. Visit the website at or call (847) 683-4788 (Hampshire) or (847) 426-1000 (Gilberts).

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