Pet Pause: How owners can stop destructive cat-scratching behavior

My veterinary practice has been receiving an increased number of phone calls asking if we declaw cats. Declawing is an ethically controversial procedure that entails amputation of the third “toe bone.” In comparison to a human, it is the same as cutting off the finger at the last joint. There are effective alternatives.

Scratching is a normal cat behavior. It allows them to groom the claws, leave scent markers and stretch their bodies. Providing numerous suitable surfaces will discourage them from using furniture, drapes, walls or doors. Cats that go outdoors may do all of their scratching outside.

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Use of specially designated cat-scratching towers can provide felines with a tempting alternative to the couch. It worked for Clyde, pictured above.

For cats mostly indoors or indoors only, several scratchers of different textures and styles should be available. Scratchers should include vertical types that extend above the cat’s stretched-out height, as well as slanted and horizontal options. Some cats prefer sisal or loose carpet, others like trays filled with cardboard and others prefer logs or wood planks. Rubbing tuna oil on the surface or, for some, catnip sprinkled on a horizontal surface can increase its attractiveness. Food rewards also can be given when the cat is seen using the scratcher. As long as it doesn’t cause your cat to become anxious, you can gently rub its paws on the scratcher and then give a food reward.

The placement of the scratchers is very important. Place them near a sleeping area, because cats stretch or scratch after waking up, or near an object that you don’t want scratched – like the corner of the sofa.

Prominent areas such as just inside a doorway to a room or in rooms with frequent activity are best.

While I’ve always had three or four cats in my house, I’ve never had a scratching problem, because I have a half-dozen scratchers of various types throughout.

Discouraging scratching

In addition to making it as desirable as possible to use the scratchers, you should make it undesirable to use furniture and other items when bringing home a new cat, retraining an existing cat or adding a new piece of furniture.

Here are some tips:

• Place double-sided cellophane tape on the corners and tops to discourage scratching.

• On rugs and carpeting, spray or rub on a citronella scent to repel cats from those areas. Tweed-type upholstery can be irresistible, so it’s best to avoid or recover it. Use the old fabric to staple onto scratchers to encourage their use.

• For sofas, take a section of a vinyl carpet protector and turn it upside down so that the nubs (which are normally used to keep it from sliding around on the carpet) are facing up. If the cat continues to use one to two pieces of furniture, it may be necessary, if possible, to isolate the furniture from the cat, at least when you’re not home.

Minimizing damage

Because scratching on furniture may not be completely eliminated, there are methods to reduce the damage done.

Regular claw trimming can be done with human nail trimmers in a “sideways” fashion so that the claw is not split. If possible, start claw trimming as kittens, and if your cat doesn’t like claw trimming, then start slowly. Trim claws in a calm environment with breaks as needed and food treats. If you don’t want to trim claws, gluing plastic nail caps over the claws is an option, but this process needs to be done every four to six weeks.

Physical punishment for inappropriate scratching should be avoided as it can cause fear or aggression toward people in the household, and at best the cat will only learn not to scratch while people are around. Indirect punishment only works if people are out of sight so that the cat learns that inappropriate scratching is unpleasant even if people are not present.

Motion detectors on compressed air-spray cans (Ssscat) or ones that activate a loud noise (Amtek Scraminal) can keep cats off tables, countertops and sofas. Booby traps such as a door alarm on a drape or a stack of plastic cups set to topple when a cat scratches can be effective deterrents.

Declawing – or, more appropriately termed, partial digital amputation – is an unnecessary surgery. It is banned in more than 20 countries, and bans are beginning to take effect in many areas of the U.S. As we learn to understand the cat’s behavior and allow it to express itself as it would naturally, this drastic solution becomes unnecessary.


Dr. Kenton Taylor is a veterinarian with Miramonte Veterinary Hospital, 1766 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View. For more information, call 962-8338 or visit


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