How to Train Legal Cat Scratching Behavior

Photo of Red Cat Scratching Chair
Red Cat Scratching Chair. istock photo

Cat scratching behavior is hard-wired into the feline brain, and is a natural instinctive behavior that can’t be stopped. Although surgery can eliminate nails, declawed cats may instead become biters, and/or avoid the litter box because of painful paws.

The top reasons cats lose their homes and lives are destructive scratching, hit-or-miss bathroom behavior, and aggression. If you understand why your cat scratches, you can train him to use a scratching post or other legal target, protect your furniture, and preserve your furry love.

Why Cats Scratch

Cats claw for physical, emotional, and social reasons. Scent pads in kitty paws leave invisible smell-cues of ownership. The marks also serve as feline Post-It Notes to warn away other cats from prime feline real estate.

Cats also claw to comfort themselves during times of fear or stress. Single cats may never or rarely scratch, and then become scratch-maniacs when more cats enter the home.

Clawing also feels good. It provides great aerobic exercise to stretch the shoulder and foreleg muscles, and keeps nails healthy.

The key to successful scratch training is giving the cat an irresistible target while making forbidden objects undesirable.

Location Is Important

Clawing marks territory so scratchable objects must be located correctly for the cat to use them. Kitty wants the world to see his scratch-graffiti, so don’t hide posts in back rooms. Place them in high traffic areas or near important cat territory— windows, lookouts, nap places, and food stations.

Watch your cat for both the places and the times of day he scratches. Maybe it's become a good morning ritual to scratch your mattress, or a "howdy" on the wooden stairs when you come home. These locations and timing help you match the ideal legal target to Kitty's preferences.

Give Cats Multiple Scratching Opportunities

The same 1+1 rule applies with scratching posts as for litter boxes--at least one object for every cat, plus one.

So for one cat, provide at least two scratch opportunities, and for two cats offer three. More always is better.

My cat Seren has three "cat trees" with three carpeted horizontal resting levels, vertical wooden posts, and beds/blankets to snuggle. One is at the back patio windows, one at the front door window, and the third at the top of the stairs overlooking the balcony. She also has three homemade scratch objects--freebies she loves just as well. One is an upholstery-covered board beside my sofa, and the other two are cut lengths of cedar log on the floor in my office. Seren uses them all. The variety gives her alternative surfaces and configurations.

Scratching the Surface

The scratch surface—wood, sisal, carpet—and its shape—vertical or horizontal—are also important. Observe your cat to figure out what he likes. Some cats prefer an upward-reaching stretch, while others like to spread out on their tummies to scratch. My cat Seren likes to roll onto her back under furniture, and scratch overhead, pulling herself along the underside.

Be sure that the legal object is sturdy enough for a cat's assault. If it tips over on him, that's likely the last time he'll use it! Also provide for your kitten's growth.

What works for a youngster probably won't satisfy a big kitty's full stretch.

Spiking the new object with catnip helps promote feline allegiance. Also, tie toys onto the area, or place a food bowl or bed nearby. Cats typically enjoy a good scratch after meals or when they awake so use this natural urge to encourage proper claw etiquette.

Transitioning to Legal Scratching Posts

When Kitty has been targeting your sofa, it's because he likes the surface and the location. So make illegal targets unattractive to the cat, until he learns to use the right object. Sticky Paws double-sided tape, endorsed by the ASPCA, works great on upholstery—cats dislike touching surfaces that stick to paw fur.

Strong scents such as citrus deodorants, Irish Spring soap, or Vicks Vapo-Rub repel many cats. You can spray or place these on the illegal target directly, or treat a washcloth and drape over the spot.

Cinnamon peppered on dark upholstery, or baby powder on light fabric prompts a poof of dust into the cat’s face when he assaults with feline claws. Wrap the chair arm with bubble wrap so it "pops" to startle the cat when he claws it. These pet-safe “booby-traps” are effective when you’re not around.

A product called Feliway  compare prices duplicates the cheek scent that cats produce and rub against furniture or other objects. Cheek-rub scent tells the cat to “chill, calm down! Everything’s cool” and reduces stress-related behaviors such as urine spraying, clawing, and aggression. In a study of 23 cats, spraying the illegal scratching target once a day for 21 days stopped the scratching completely. Feliway comes as a spray or a plug-in from pet product stores.

Moving Targets

Don't forget to give him a legal alternative. Place the legal target in front of the damaged spot on the furniture. That way you can direct his claws appropriately, while he still has a preferred location for scratching. Once he's using the right scratching post, you can move it--six inches at a time every other day, until in a more acceptable place (for you AND the cat).

When you see forbidden scratching, interrupt the behavior with a loud sudden noise—slap a newspaper against your thigh, clap hands, or shake an empty soda can full of pennies. A long-distance squirt gun aimed at a furry tail can startle some cats out of the behavior. Once kitty stops, direct claws to the legal target, and praise when he does the right thing. Even better, catch him in the act of scratching the right object, and praise, pet and treat!

For hard-case cats, Soft Paws reduce the potential for scratch damage. The vinyl claw covers glue over the top of each nail, and come in a variety of fashion colors. They are available from pet supply stores and some veterinary offices. You can learn to apply them yourself.

While cat scratching is normal, it doesn't mean you can't protect your furniture. Understanding what cats want, and why they scratch, helps you satisfy this natural kitty urge while allowing the cat to keep his claws and his place in your home and heart.