By Dr Kate Mornement Ph.D, BSc(Hons)
Cats scratch for different reasons and this behaviour can become problematic when your cat chooses to scratch your carpet or furniture.
But don’t despair! You can reduce unwanted scratching and teach your pet to use a cat scratching post instead of your favourite couch.
Why do cats scratch?
Scratching is a normal, species specific behaviour in cats. Scratching serves a number of health and behavioural purposes for cats. Visual scratch marks and olfactory scent on objects within the territory communicate to other cats that the territory is occupied.
It helps to keep the cat's paws and claws in good condition and facilitating stretching of the muscles in their body, particularly in their forearms. The behaviour of scratching is therefore a self-rewarding behaviour. This means that when cats scratch, it feels good, so the behaviour is repeated.
Providing an outlet for this behaviour is very important, particularly for indoor only cats, to promote optimal welfare. Cat scratching posts are ideal and come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but what do you do if your cat scratches your carpet or furniture?
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How to stop your cat scratching your carpet or furniture
Cat scratching and scratch marks can cause a lot of damage to carpets, furniture and curtains which are expensive to replace. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to help reduce unwanted scratching and to teach your cat to scratch where you want them to.
Provide a large cat scratching post
Because cats need to scratch they will often target large items within the home such as chairs, couches, curtains or carpet. In the wild, most cats choose similar prominent landmarks to scratch, such as large trees or fallen logs, because these items are more obvious to other animals living in the environment. For this reason, larger cat scratching posts or cat trees are ideal.
To stop your cat from scratching your carpet or furniture place a tall scratching post or tower in an area of the home where your cat spends most of its time.
Discover your cat's scratching preferences
Cats vary in their preferences and ultimately your cat decides what particular surface they prefer to scratch. Most cats prefer vertical surfaces to scratch, as these mimic trees they would scratch in the wild, whereas other cats like horizontal scratching surfaces.
Because most cats have preferences when it comes to the size, shape and material of the scratching surface they like to scratch, try to provide a variety of scratching posts in different materials such as carpet, sisal and cardboard. This will help you determine any preferences your cat may have when it comes to scratching surface.
Your cat may also prefer to scratch in certain rooms or areas of the house. Placing different cat scratchers around the home provides variety and allows your cat to choose which style scratching post and material they prefer. If your cat likes scratching outdoors try to provide them with opportunities to do so during the day.
Observe your cat over time to see what their preferences are when it comes to scratching posts and try to offer them opportunities to scratch that align with their preferences. If you have a puppy you may be interested in our article on how to stop your puppy biting.
Reduce competition for access to scratching posts
If you live in a multi cat household ensure you provide enough scratching posts to avoid competition as many cats don't like to share their resources. When you have more than one cat, one might avoid using a scratch post that's been used by another cat in the home. This may mean you need a new scratching post for your other cat to use if you have multiple cats.
Deter unwanted scratching
Deterrents, such as foil, plastic sheeting or double sided tape, can be placed where your cat has been previously scratching in undesirable places (e.g. on the furniture or rugs). These deterrents don't feel good to scratch which make the behaviour less likely and therefore help to reduce unwanted scratching.
However, the most effective way to stop scratching in unwanted places is to teach your cat to scratch on a scratching post.
How to get your pet to use a cat scratching post
Because scratching is a self-rewarding behaviour, regardless of where your cat scratches, you can train your cat to use a scratching post by making it very rewarding to do so.
To do this, catch your cat in the act of scratching where you want them to, say “yes” and immediately reward the desired behaviour with a high value treat, praise and anything else your cat values in life (e.g. play, affection, attention etc).
With repetition and consistency, your cat will learn that using scratching posts is more rewarding and they will develop a strong preference for scratching there.
Build a positive association with the scratching posts
Build a positive association with the scratch post by leaving treats on it, spraying with catnip and tying fun toys on it.
Make the scratch post an enjoyable place to be for your cat and encourage scratching there with toys. Place your cat's bed on top of the post. The more time your cat spends on or near the scratching post the more likely they will use it.
Make sure the scratching post is sturdy
Ensure you choose a good quality, sturdy scratching post otherwise your cat may not use it. Cats hate feeling unsteady when climbing and cats who have lost their balance or fallen from a scratching post may avoid using it in future due to the negative experience.
Make sure any new scratching post you purchase is able to support your cats entire body weight without wobbling.
A good scratching post may cost cat owners a little more initially but investing in your cat's scratching post will pay off if it helps to avoid unwanted scratching.
How to ensure your cat continues to use the scratching post
Now that you’ve taught your cat to use the scratching post you’ll want to ensure this desired behaviour continues
Use intermittent reinforcement
The best way to maintain scratching post use is to implement a technique called intermittent reinforcement.
This involves rewarding the desired behaviour intermittently, with things your cat loves, to maintain it. If you stop rewarding desirable scratching altogether, your cat might decide it likes to scratch your new couch and revert back to unwanted scratching, and you don’t want that!
So, remember to reward your cat every now and then when they use a scratching post and this will help to ensure the desirable scratching behaviour persists and your furniture remains intact.