Cat Scratching: The Ultimate Practical Guide for Cat Lovers

The perfect cat tree becomes a scratcher, a climber, a watch tower, and a first class sleeper.

Not again!

Finally home. You grab your warm blanket ready to put those feet up, only to find another ripped piece of fabric hanging off the side of your couch. 

We’ve all heard the horror stories. Brand new sofas shredded to pieces, antique wood furniture scarred for life, bits of the new fluffy bedroom carpet floating about the house. 

Surely, this cat scratching is only going to get worse.

And the cat? A picture of innocence, giving herself a manicure on her favorite fluffy cushion, watching you like nothing’s happened.

So what should you do?

The truth is, cats do scratch. A lot. And get ready for the fact that even though they adore you to bits, you’ll still end up with tiger-like scars down your arms sometimes. Guaranteed just before a fancy party for which you need to pull your best look. 

Sure, most of us do know that cats should be using some sort of a scratch post, but fewer of us have an idea why. What does all this clawing mean? Is it an attitude? Is it a need? And if you had bought them a post already, why don’t they bother to even throw a glance at it?  

The good news is – if you’re asking why, you’re asking the right question. 

Because to really save your home from a slow and painful death by claws, you need to start at the root. It’s crucial to understand why cats feel so passionate and so particular, about where they scratch. 

And why is the focus always on your favorite things? 

Do they do it to us, humans, on purpose?

There’s a lot to figure out. So let’s crack open this nutshell!

It’s territorial

Two words: mother nature.

Although most cats are domesticated animals, they still respond super strongly to their deep-rooted instincts inherited from their ancient predecessors. They simply cannot help it. 

You’ve probably noticed other instinctive behaviors, apart from the scratching. It all ties back to following good old feline intuition which once helped cats to survive in the wild. 

And scratching is an efficient way to mark their territory. As it happens, they’ve found themselves living in your house. So your house has become their territory and they will treat it as such. 

In nature, they would go on patrol every day. Much like their larger cousins in the wild, our cats would walk, possibly for miles, with a precise effort to mark all the crucial areas in their section of the Earth.

So they do the same in your house, as a way to claim ownership of their space. 

And it makes sense they choose to mark the most important social and personal areas. To let others know they’re socially important, too. 

That’s why they prefer to scratch where you spend the largest chunks of time yourself. They scratch where you sit, cook, work, or sleep. It’s how they claim their involvement in the daily grind. 

It’s an outlet 

Cats are famous for being quite the zen masters. They know how to keep their energies in balance. And they’ve perfected effective ways to deal with any excess.

Ever noticed the crazy energy explosions that can transform even the laziest cat into a puffed-up wide-eyed monster?

This goes back to old times when most cats were feral and lived on their own terms. The concentrated energy outbursts were used in hunting. Similar to lions, the cats would spend a lot of time gathering energy and then use the overcharge to catch the unfortunate prey. 

But how does this tie back to scratching? Well, most cats don’t hunt for themselves anymore. They are effectively discouraged from it by easy meals literally served on silver plates. So, scratching is the next best option to let out overcharge (aside from running around the house like lunatics and swinging on curtains). 

Cats also love to scratch when they are excited. Our most used scratching post is in the kitchen. The boys get super excited about each mealtime. They follow me into the kitchen trying to play it cool, but I know their game. You know what always gives them away? The scratching. 

It’s practical

In nature, cats scratch trees or other textured surfaces multiple times a day.

This practice is crucial to keep their claws and fingers healthy and prevent overgrowth. It files and sharpens the claws, and removes any dead ones. You might even notice your cat bitting them off as part of her evening cleaning routine. You’ll soon start finding these old dry claw shells everywhere. This was definitely a surprise to me at first!

Keeping their leg muscles strong and their claws in a good shape can literally save their life. Like when they need to climb a tree to escape the dog next door, or using the claws to catch and cling onto something in the middle of a fall (which I’ve seen happen many times).

So if your cat loves flying around like she’s practicing to join feline Cirque Du Soleil, you should probably leave her claws intact and not use the trimming scissors. Just in case they might need a safety net. 

It’s part of their cat-yoga practice 

Cats never underestimate the importance of a good stretch after exercise! Or after a nap. 

The way they use their full body weight and strength when they lean on the scratching post forms an important part of that practice. It keeps the spine nice and flexible. It also stretches various muscles in the cat’s front legs and shoulders, while keeping them strong.

It’s practically the downward-facing dog pose in reverse. 

How to drive attention away from your furniture  

So, how do you put all this knowledge into practice? 

It’s clear we can’t force cats to stop scratching at all. What we can do, however, and what works really well for most cats, is to redirect their attention. 

Instead of focusing on what you don’t want, use clever ways to guide the cats to places where they can go to town scratching as they please. Find alternatives attractive enough to serve the same purpose, but better. 

Before you know it, the cats will forget about your new sofa entirely! 

1. Invest in a durable scratching post

No matter what age or size your cat is now, the best long term option is to get a tall, heavy, and sturdy scratching post straight away.

The cat needs to be able to stretch their whole body length and use full strength at all times. This is even more important once they reach full size as adults.

When my first two boys were still pocket-sized, I made all the mistakes. I’d grab the first cheap wobbly scratcher I came across in the pet shop, only to be surprised later. The cats didn’t like it and completely ignored it. It took me a while to realize why.

If the scratch post doesn’t give steady support, it’s completely useless. To have a satisfying scratch, the cat needs to be able to fully stretch their front paws on the post while standing on their hind legs. They like to lean full body weight against the post to use it effectively.

When we finally invested in a proper, tall, and heavy scratcher that always stayed put, I noticed a massive decline in scratch marks everywhere else. Two cats almost tripling in size and two additional cats later, they all still use and enjoy the same post now! That’s what I call a steady investment.

Another product which can take a lot of attention away from your furniture is a cat tree. Cat trees often include multiple scratch areas and can become a major part of the cat’s claw-sharping routine. 

A good cat tree can literally become the center of their attention. It’s practically a scratcher, climber, 1st class sleeper, play den, and a meditating spot all in one.

Invest in a highly functioning product straight away to prevent a lot of furniture damage. It does save money long term. And your nerves, too.

2. Use the scratch post strategically 

If the cat has already started scratching repeatedly in the same spot, like the corner of your sofa, fix the new scratch post right next to it.

I know, it looks ugly! But your couch is worth it. Over time you can gradually move the post further away. But for now, offer your little rascal an irresistible alternative in an area he’s already chosen. 

Show the cat the new scratcher is there just for him. If he still tries to have a go on the sofa, gently put him on the scratch post instead. As soon as he uses it, make sure a treat comes flying! For the next few days, cheer the cat every time he scratches the post and not the sofa. 

If you’re finding scratch marks in other areas too, place additional scratch pads in each spot. If you’re on a budget, you don’t even have to spend money on those. You can use things you may already have in the house. Cats love scratching old sisal or cotton doormats, old bathroom rugs, or pieces of carpet. You can also get super cheap scratch pads made of shredded cardboard in most pet shops.

Our favorite DIY scratchers are off-cuts from our local carpet shop. We just pick out the ones with a soft and fluffy texture and stick them around the house with double-sided tape. We mostly just place them on the floor, but you can also use them on vertical surfaces like the side of your bed.

Cats actually make things easier for us, when they let us know their territory-marking preferences first. Then, we can simply follow up with the alternative we have chosen, in places the cat has chosen. This makes them feel understood and they appreciate the effort!

3. Entice them with herbs they go crazy for

Yep, cats can’t resist the allure of a good, strong-smelling herb. Especially the famous catnip plant, which literally sends them on a play trip! Most cats smell catnip from miles away and go crazy for it. They’ll happily play or scratch anywhere you put it. Which makes it the perfect tool for you.

So, if your cat doesn’t quite grasp the concept of the new scratch post, just rub some dried catnip leaves all over it, and put some on the floor in front of it.

Sprinkle catnip in all the places you want the cat to hang out; like the new cat-shelf you want them to use instead of the mantelpiece, and where you prefer they play, like the cat tree. 

Dried catnip is the most effective. You can buy it ready to use in most pet shops. But most cats like to nibble on fresh plants too. You can grow your own from early spring through to late autumn.

You can also use herbal play spray. A play spray typically contains a mixture of catnip, mint, and pheromones, a blend that will make any scratchpad or toy more attractive than even the TV cords. 

A daily dose of play spray has repeatedly helped to protect mum’s Christmas tree from destruction. Mia, the most mischievous kitten I’ve ever met, literally never stops until she reaches total exhaustion and falls asleep mid-jump. And naturally, climbing the Christmas tree was on the top of her list. So we placed her kitty tree beside it, sprayed all the time, and she was happy to play there instead.

The tree lasted until mum’s first day back at work. When she returned home, she found it flat on the floor.

Don’t panic though. Even the craziest kittens will grow out of it and calm down eventually. 

4. Upcycle your old furniture

And donate it to the cats. Nothing says ‘I want us to get on’ better than adding their own special piece to your most used areas. 

Embrace the DIY skills you didn’t know you had. You don’t even have to be particularly great at it to win at least a few rounds of Man vs. Claws. And what’s even better, the cats will love you for it. 

Giving your old unwanted furniture a feline-friendly makeover is easier than you think. It might be an old coffee table, your old laundry basket, a storage box, even an old shelving unit. Cover it in some fluffy fabric and dedicate it to the cats. 

We have given our cats an old footrest which came as a separate piece to our vintage sofa. We’ve made the footrest into a mini cat couch which they love. They chill on it for hours, staring at the lit fireplace. And of course, they can scratch it all they want!

If you have an old bedroom dresser you no longer want, remove the doors. Place carpet off-cuts on the shelves inside and on top, sprinkle on some catnip, and the cat will love leaping to the top for a good scratch, and then hide and sleep inside. 

Clear out some shelves or an unused shelving unit to create a makeshift cat bunk bed. If it’s sturdy enough and near a window, they’ll spend a lot of time on it just sunbathing. And if you stick anything scratchable to the sides, it transfers into another amazing scratch area. 

When you give them something special they can use on their own, you will totally rock their world. 

5. Careful with the claw-trimmers, Eugene

Using claw-trimming scissors can be a bit controversial. 

When used correctly in suitable conditions, these scissors can become a helpful furniture-saving tool.

But, in many cases, claw-trimming can put your cat at risk and you should avoid it. Here’s when:

If your cat goes outdoors and you wouldn’t exactly describe your garden as small, and especially when the cat roams freely the adjusting fields and orchards, you should not trim claws at all. 

Instead, get the best scratch post you can find, and leave the cat well alone to look after their claws and exercise their legs as only they know how. Why?

In natural conditions, sharp claws can save your cat’s life.

They can stop the cat from falling. Should she need to make a big leap to get away, often only hanging by the claws will allow her to complete that jump and escape. 

If the space around your house offers encounters with other animals, sooner or later your cat will need to be able to get away, or to defend herself. She’ll need to climb roofs, fences, or trees easily. Occasionally, she might even need to use the claws as weapons in a tackle. 

Don’t reduce her chances of staying safe.

However, if your cat lives full-time indoors, enjoys a small patio garden, or sunbathes on your safe balcony, then it’s perfectly fine to trim the claws every now and then.

Trimming makes the claws just a little bit duller so you can save your hands from those friendly but painful play-scratches. And perhaps more importantly, save what remains of your sofa upholstering at this point.

But be very careful. Trimming can be a tricky business indeed! 

The cat needs to be used to you touching on her paws. And even if she is, she’ll still hate it at first. That’s why it’s a good idea to start early with small kittens, while they’re easier to handle, and make them used to it from a young age. 

Imagine trying to trim claws on a towel-wrapped, 6-kilo-bundle of unimaginable strength and resistance. It will literally end in blood, sweat, and tears! Nutcases like this are better left to the professional help of your new best friend, the vet. 

If you do manage to get the cat to somehow agree, be extra careful! Only trim the sharp tip of the nail. Don’t go anywhere near the pink part where the claw starts to connect with their finger! 

Once you’ve mastered the art of it, the claw-scissors might as well become your favorite tool in the box. 

What to avoid at all cost

Declawing

Thankfully, the awful practice of surgical declawing has long been made illegal in many countries. 

However, sometimes you can still come across cats who have been declawed either illegally, or they come from countries when this law is not yet in place. Such cats are typically not able to go outside unsupervised, because their ability to defend themselves and get out of challenging situations has been severely compromised. 

It only takes to meet one declawed cat, to understand how cruel this process truly is. Declawing doesn’t only remove the claws, it also removes the adjoining part of their finger bones. The process is painful and recovery can take weeks. 

But I believe they never actually fully recover. The way they walk changes. They end up frustrated for the rest of their life because they’re not able to act on some of their most rooted and pressing instincts. 

Punishments

While fear-based training methods remain highly questionable for dogs, punishments don’t work for cats! Ever. 

Cats have far too much self-respect to even remotely tolerate ‘being taught lessons’. 

When people shout at cats, spray in their faces, or otherwise express anger, the cats get confused and scared. Scared not only of what’s being done, but of the human. 

Effective training methods simply aren’t based on confusion and disrespect. Remember, everything cats do is somehow connected to their ancient instincts. Also, very often it’s actually their way of letting you know that they need something. 

If they learn that you are unpredictable and scary, they cannot fully trust you. Their survival instinct says so. And so they won’t trust you. Your bond will become all the more fragile, or even extinct. I cannot possibly stress enough how crucial this is!

Cats hate nothing more than drama and making a scene. If this becomes a recurrence, they will keep well away from you. They will lose all interest to please you, or even to keep your love. Rather, they’ll become wary of you, and twitch at your every move.

So forget about teaching them lessons, forget about the notion that you know better. Because it’s not always true.

Sure, tricky situations are bound to come up when you’ll need to react quickly and perhaps sharply, but always keep this other being in mind. They are in this relationship too, and they are learning.

Specific to scratching, people sometimes use double-sided sticky tape in places they don’t want the cat to scratch. But if the glue on the sticky tape is strong, not only it makes the cat freak out, but they might also get hurt. The tape can damage the skin on their paws, and strip off any hair that grows there, and it could take the cat days to clean the glue off. 

This method works a treat

Luckily, most people do understand that with cats, you do get much further when you first learn about where their behaviors come from. When you understand and respect their wild roots, it makes life much easier for both of you! 

Approach these sensitive beings with compassion, patience, and humor, and everything will change.

You’ll learn to coexist together in peace. Moreover, you’ll grow to love their strange little ways. 

Scratching holds one of the most prominent positions in all feline lives. And yes, it is probably the behavior we tend to struggle with the most. Especially when everything in our house used to be so new and shiny, pre-cat. 

But it does get better. 

First, find a little time to do your own research and learn all you can about the history of these fascinating and incredibly clever animals. Guaranteed you will feel a load of newly-found respect for them.

Secondly, remember they don’t do it on purpose to annoy or test you. They do it because their brain is still firmly connected to old instincts and that’s something cats simply cannot help. It will work absolute wonders when they realize you understand their reasons and try to meet them half way. 

When you follow the points highlighted here, you’ll have laid a super-strong foundation to fall back on. And it will also be fun for the cats to appreciate your efforts. 

This human simply just gets them!

Be calm around cats even when they do strange things, and they’ll sense it. 

They’ll sense it’s safe for them to open their heart to you, be your friend, and trust your advice. And in return, you’ll soon feel like you can trust them to do their very best too. 

As soon as you stop making scratching an issue, it will stop being one. 

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