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The Itch to Scratch

By Andrea Carne 

cat scratching
Offering a variety of both vertical and horizontal options for scratching (and some on angles too) in various locations around the home is ideal © Can Stock Photo / galsand

Regardless of whichever behavior issue I have been called upon to assist a cat guardian with – whether it be inappropriate toileting, aggression towards humans, or aggression between cats in a multicat household – I can almost guarantee that when I ask at the end of a consult, “Is there anything else you wanted to chat about while I’m here?”, the response will always include some variation of, “How do I get them to stop scratching the furniture?”

My first response is generally to explain that scratching is a natural cat behavior. It provides an opportunity to sharpen claws, stretch the back and legs, deposit scent via secretions from the paw pads, leave a visual sign of territory and generally make cats feel good.

Atkinson (2018, p.26) explains as follows: “Cats scratch surfaces using the claws of their forefeet and often have preferred scratching areas where the behavior is repeated. They may demonstrate an individual preference for using either a vertical or horizontal surface or may scratch equally on both.”

As anyone in the cat behavior field knows, because scratching is a natural behavior, it’s very important that we allow cats to engage in it and do not discourage it. Discouragement of something an animal has an innate need to do can lead to frustration and/or stress and create additional behavior problems too.

Even if we can’t provide exact opportunities for every natural cat behavior (e.g. an indoor-only cat needing to hunt small live prey several times a day), we owe it to their mental well-being to at least provide alternatives (e.g. using a hunting sequence with a wand toy and a treat provided at the end).

Natural Behavior

When it comes to scratching, as natural and important as the behavior may be, conflict between feline and guardian can arise when it occurs on surfaces the humans aren’t keen on the cats using. Sofas and other soft furnishings are often the main targets, but I’ve also seen it on soft wood furniture and kitchen cabinetry.

Inevitably, whenever the issue arises, however, the one thing I can almost guarantee is that the guardian has either (a) not provided an alternative for the cat to scratch on or (b) if they have, have not provided an alternative that is acceptable to the cat(s).

In my experience, the types of available offerings in pet and department stores tend to include small, flimsy scratch posts (that are not only too short to provide a full body stretch but would also topple over if the cat attempted to stretch out fully) or small boards on string that can be hung over a doorknob (but that move too much to enable any type of effective scratching).

And while well-meaning guardians may purchase items such as these for their cat(s), the result may be that their pets still need an outlet for the scratching behavior and so instead may turn to a bigger, sturdier alternative – such as the sofa.

What Cats Want

How, then, do we help guardians choose scratching options that are acceptable to all parties? Well, the best thing is to ask cats what they want!

A study by Zhang and McGlone (2020) looked at scratcher preferences of adult ‘in-home’ cats. While not a huge study – only involving 36 cats – it provides some insight into what cats generally prefer and points to an overall need to treat cats as individuals, with individual likes and dislikes, and the need for guardians to provide choices.

The study was carried out in the cats’ own homes and involved three different experiments. In each, the cats were offered particular choices in scratching equipment and their response was measured in terms of the amount of time they spent with each item and the frequency of their visits to same over a time period of one week. A video camera was set up to ensure as natural responses to the items were captured as possible.

The first experiment looked at vertical vs. horizontal scratching preferences, the second considered texture preferences, and the third examined whether the addition of an olfactory stimulus made any difference to preference for otherwise identical scratching posts.

In brief, the researchers found that the cats preferred vertical scratchers over horizontal, cardboard or rope over carpet and sofa fabric, and they liked the addition of catnip or silvervine over Feliscratch™ (a synthetic pheromone product produced by the manufacturers of Feliway™). In fact, the synthetic pheromone had no more effect on preference than the scratching post which had nothing at all.


So, what does this all mean? Well, it comes down to my go-to word for making cats happy – choice. Offering choice to cats – and indeed all animals – is so important.

Choice in resources and enrichment gives cats a greater sense of control over their environment and reduces the perceived need to compete for important items. In multicat households, offering choice becomes critical in the health, well-being and welfare of the feline inhabitants.

Choice involves not only number of resources but also variety. When it comes to scratching, the Zhang and McGlone (2020) study supports my opinion that the needs of individual cats need to be met by offering a variety of scratching surfaces and equipment to meet the preferences of all. And, as Atkinson (2018) states, some cats may choose different types at different times. So, the more options we provide, the happier our cats will be.

Quality pet stores and online pet businesses offer a multitude of good quality options for scratching equipment including huge, sturdy vertical poles and horizontal options in a range of textures. But there are also plenty of homemade alternatives that can be created with relative ease.

A log or tree trunk with soft bark is a good option, as long as it is heavy enough and positioned well so it cannot be moved by the cat. Cat trees can also be home made through the use of sturdy wooden poles on a heavy base with sisal rope wrapped tightly around, or cardboard or carpet, depending on a cat’s individual preference.

Offering a variety of both vertical and horizontal options for scratching (and some on angles too) in various locations around the home is ideal. Location is vital – see where the cat has already chosen to scratch and place an alternative there. As the cat begins to use the alternative, slowly move it to its more permanent location (but be prepared to experiment until the cat lets you know it’s in the right spot).

At the same time, make the “unacceptable” scratching surface less appealing by covering with a throw or some thick plastic sheeting just while the transference process is happening.

Guardians should also consider providing scratching options near sleeping, feeding and greeting areas as these are all locations where many cats elect to display the behavior.

Play items, such as a wand toy, can be used to lure the cats to the scratching equipment, as can the addition of catnip or silvervine. Using a soft cloth to transfer scent from the cat’s paws to the scratcher may also help, as may prescratching a new surface with a wood screw or similar.

In the end, cat guardians do need to let their cats scratch. It’s natural and is an important behavior that plays a role in a cat’s health and well-being. As long as it doesn’t become excessive or obsessive (which can be stress or anxiety-related and may need to be investigated further), scratching is a behavior we need to encourage.

This means discovering our cats’ preferences and finding the balance between fulfilling their behavioral needs and prolonging the life of our soft furnishings.

Atkinson, T. (2018). Practical Feline Behaviour: Understanding Cat Behaviour and Improving Welfare. Oxfordshire, UK: CABI
Zhang, L., & McGlone, J.J. (2020). Scratcher preferences of adult in-home cats and effects of olfactory supplements on cat scratching. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 227 104997

Fisher, P. (2016, July). Scratch Here, Not There. BARKS from the Guild (19) 25-26
PPG Cat Committee. (2019, September). Destructive Scratching. BARKS from the Guild (38) 18-19

This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, March 2021, pp.44-46. Read the full article The Itch to Scratch.

For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.

About the Author
Andrea Carne is a graduate of the University of Southern Queensland, Australia where she majored in journalism and drama before, later in life, following her dream to work in the field of animal behavior. She is a qualified veterinary nurse and dog trainer and member of PPG Australia. Her special area of interest is cat behavior and her passion for it led to the establishment of her own cat behavior consultancy Cattitude, based in southern Tasmania, through which she offers private in-home consultations.

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