11 min read

Why Do Cats Scratch?

Hint: It’s not to teach the couch a lesson 🐈🛋

The claws of an everyday house cat may not be quite as impressive as those of a lion or tiger, but they are sharp enough to strike fear into the heart of anyone with a mid-century modern sofa. Just like their wild cousins, who prefer to leave deep scars in tree trunks, domestic cats are prone to scratching pretty much anything, as any cat owner knows.

So why do all cats scratch? It’s not that today’s felines have a particular vendetta against attractive seating — cat scratching behavior is actually instinctual and can benefit cats in many ways.

Drawing their claws across the nubby texture of furniture helps cats maintain healthy nails, according to Dr. Emily Levine, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist in New Jersey. While scratching and stretching, house cats extend and retract their nails, which removes the dead outer nail sheath. This keeps their claws sharp and at a manageable length (though they still may need some trimming now and again).

Another important reason today’s cats are prone to the destruction of couches and armchairs is marking, explains Levine, just like their ancestors.

“There are two ways that they can mark,” Levine tells The Dodo. “One is to leave visual cues — when you think of cats out in nature, they’re scratching on tree trunks — or they can also leave scent from their paws as well.” By marking, your cat is claiming his territory, and making sure all other felines pick up on the signals.

When do cats scratch?

When it comes to scratching, every cat and household is a little bit different. “For some cats, when they get up in the morning and they’re stretching, scratching is part of their grooming wake-up routine,” Levine says. “If they’re marking, they may do it at certain times when they feel they have to mark, depending on intercat communication.”

Marking often depends on the social dynamics in the home, especially in multi-cat dwellings where the cats roam freely. Marking via visual cue or by leaving behind a scent released from the glands in a cat’s paws is a way of saying to other cats, “Hey, I’m here, this is my area.” The more cats there are, the more frequently a cat may visit certain spaces or rooms and scratch one area, Levine adds.

How to keep cats from scratching furniture

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In order to keep a cat from ripping up your favorite armchair, Levine recommends new cat owners try and find out what materials their cat prefers to scratch. “Some cats really like the sisal [rope] material, some like carpet, some like cardboard, and so we don’t want to make the choice for them because if we do, and it’s not what they prefer, they’re gonna find our couch and our chairs,” Levine explains.

It’s important when bringing a new cat into your home, regardless of age, to give him plenty of scratching options, Levine says. This means that not only do the cats need scratching posts made from different materials, but in varying shapes and sizes as well.

“Some cats like to mark or scratch horizontally and some cats like to scratch vertically,” Levine explains. “So, not only do we have to give them a choice of materials, we have to give them horizontal and vertical surfaces.”

Where to place the scratching post

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While some people would rather not display old or unattractive scratching posts in their main living space, hiding these scratching toys in the corner or in a less-used room will render them useless.

“[For cats], it’s like putting up a sign for your business a mile down the road from your actual storefront and not having a sign on your storefront,” Levine says. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Owners who want to protect their furniture should place whatever scratching object their cat ends up liking next to the couch or chair, even if just temporarily. Once the cat gets used to using it, then the item can be moved to a more aesthetically pleasing place in the household, Levine notes.

If your new kitty doesn’t show interest in any of his scratching objects, there are certain ways to sweeten the deal. Pheromone-based products, such as Feliscratch, can be applied to certain surfaces to draw the cat to a specific area. If your feline friend goes crazy for catnip, products such as catnip-infused cardboard scratch pads will have your cat blissed out while he maintains his nails (think kitty spa!).

How to stop a cat from scratching furniture

Once a cat has started scratching the furniture, drapes or surfaces, it’s a difficult behavior to stop. Double-sided sticky tape can be placed on a cat’s favorite scratching surface as a deterrent, which will create an unpleasant sensation. Levine suggests placing all alternative scratching posts and pads near the cat’s preferred object, so they will be attracted to these surfaces instead.

Reward training, which reinforces good behavior, can also be helpful to break a cat of destructive scratching. Like clicker training, reward training works by getting your cat to associate a certain word, such as “Yes,” with treats and positive behavior. Every time your cat does something good, such as scratching in an appropriate place, say “Yes” and give him a tasty treat. The training works best if you reward consistently and give the treat directly after the cat performs the behavior you’re trying to reinforce. In time, whenever the cat hears the word, he will know he has done the right thing.

When you’re out of options ...

To deter cats from going near certain pieces of furniture or in a particular room, Levine notes that unpleasant scents, such as citrus, will make a cat think twice about approaching. The strong smells of lemon, orange or grapefruit are not particularly pleasant to a cat’s sensitive nose, but be careful that you don’t spray too much. “Their sense of smell is really good, so if you are trying to put a scratching post near where they’re scratching, they still may smell [citrus] in the air,” Levine warns.

If all else fails, nail caps such as Soft Paws can be applied directly to a cat’s nails. These vinyl covers, which are glued on to your cat's existing nails, will stop the furniture damage, but they won’t stop nails from growing. The nail caps will need to be reapplied every four to six weeks, as they fall off, but if your cat is OK with that, they can be an excellent alternative — and a savior to the couch.