Cats 😼 scratch for a lot of reasons. They mark their territory, they sharpen their claws (and keep them naturally trimmed), and it's even something of a leisure activity.
Of course, for those of us with wooden furniture🪑, upholstery🛋️, leather💺, or anything those cat claws can dig into, they will, and it's not long before all of our furniture is torn to shreds💩, our curtains are in tatters, and our smug little kittens 🐈🐈🐈are ever so proud of themselves.
Wouldn't it be nice if they had some sense of etiquette?
Well, unfortunately, there's not really etiquette when it comes to cats, just training👩🏫.
Fortunately, you can train a cat, even if many people think of it as an untenable practice 😔 for cats with their fierce independence and resistance to instructions, I have firsthand knowledge that it can be done.
So, how do you train a cat to not scratch your furniture🪑? More importantly, how do you allow them the freedom to scratch things you purchase for them such as their scratching post?
Today you’ll learn what to do and what not to do to stop your cat from scratching your furniture.
For believers in the spritz bottle 🔫as a good disciplinarian tool🔧, this post comes with a great educational video📽️ by Jason Galaxy AKA “the Cat Daddy,” don’t miss it!
Yes, they can. Contrary to popular belief, cats are just as trainable as dogs. Pet parents that understand basic cat nature are able to get their cats to perform a number of desired behaviors on command.
Sadly, many cat parents believe undesirable behavior can’t be changed. According to the ASPCA and Four Paws International behavioral issues are one of the top reasons cats are surrendered to shelters.
The widespread misconception that cats are untrainable leads many pet parents to give up cats with behavioral challenges.
You may not know this but according to a report by the Humane Society of the United States, of all cats entering shelters annually (3.2M) in the United States, about 58% (that’s 530,000 cats) are euthanized every year.
“People don’t traditionally train cats because they think of cats as... independent and full of free will…What they don’t realize, though, is that they are subconsciously training their cats on a daily basis.” - Sarah Ellis for National Geographic
By focusing on providing timely rewards for desired behaviors while avoiding any type of punishment and ignoring undesired ones, pet parents can help cats adopt acceptable and wanted behaviors while making a huge difference in their lives.
Set Realistic Expectations for Yourself
First things first: know what you're getting into. You can’t expect your cat to just stop scratching.
Cats naturally scratch. It's part of their nature, and it's not a behavior you can get rid of. What you can do is teach them what is and isn't acceptable to scratch, with positive reinforcement for the behaviors you want.
Even with immaculate training and consistent reinforcement, you're also probably not going to be able to fully prevent your cat from scratching your furniture.
Sometimes, their furry little brains just push the urge, and they can't help themselves. But you can cut it down from constant to once in a blue moon, and that's good enough for most cat parents.
Don't Declaw a Cat
I know it's probably not something I need to tell you, my fantastic animal-loving audience, but it's worth reiterating just in case: never declaw a cat.
While declawing a cat will stop them from being able to destroy your furniture, if you’re ever watched a declawed cat, they still perform the motions of scratching, albeit without claws.
The fact is, declawing a cat is incredibly inhumane and dozens of countries have banned the practice. Here in the U.S., New York and Maryland have banned the surgery with several states introducing legislation to follow suit.
This elective procedure is not for the health and well-being of the cat, it’s for the peace of mind of their human caregivers. Imagine if your fingertips, were cut off at the knuckle just because someone wanted you to stop biting your nails. It just doesn’t make sense, does it?
Declawing is the removal of that last knuckle in a cat. You're basically maiming a living creature to save a piece of furniture.
Stop for a minute and reflect on this.
Not only are you altering the intended anatomy of an animal forever, but this irreversible procedure can also lead to long-term pain and litterbox issues.
The bottom line here is the believed perceived benefits simply do not outweigh the damage caused.
By trimming their nails frequently (my boys get a pawdicure every toe beans Tuesday) you can avoid a lot of the damage razor sharp claws can cause. And with the training we’ll get into next, you can direct those trimmed claws to more appropriate scratching surfaces.
In animal training, there are concepts called positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Most people don't actually know what they mean, though, even if you think you do.
Positive reinforcement is a reward for a behavior that reinforces that behavior. Simple, right?
Negative reinforcement is where people get mixed up. It's actually just removing something that increases the likelihood of the appropriate behavior being taken.
An animal-related example comes from horse riding; if you want to steer a horse, you apply pressure; when they turn the right way, you remove the pressure, reinforcing the behavior you want.
Most people think of negative reinforcement as adding something (a sharp word, a spritz from the spray bottle) to disincentivize a behavior.
That's actually punishment, the counterpart to reinforcement. Moreover, it's positive punishment, the addition of a reaction that punishes the behavior.
Negative punishment, meanwhile, would be the removal of something due to the behavior. Sending your kid to bed without dessert is an example.
Unfortunately, out of these four options – positive and negative, reinforcement and punishment – the only one that reliably works for animals like cats is positive reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement relies on having some sort of negative stimulus, which for a cat might be simply screaming “No,” or using an annoying noise or scent then removing it when they scratch the right thing.
“You think you’re scolding, but you’re “inadvertently giving the cat attention, which, in the cat’s mind, is better than nothing, and so it’s rewarding,” - National Geographic
Unfortunately, there's no association between negative and behavior, so they don't know what to do, and it can end up stressing them out.
Positive punishment, like the spritz bottle, can sometimes be effective but can be borderline animal abuse, depending on what you're using. A spritz bottle is just about the most you can do, and even then, you need to be very diligent with it if you want it to be effective.
The Best and Worst Ways to Train Your Cat | Jackson Galaxy | 6:50 Min Video
Negative punishment just doesn't work. Animals don't have the higher reasoning to understand that something being taken away is because of a behavior, so it just doesn't work.
“Most punishments are not given at the right time or are not the appropriate type for the situation. In fact, studies have shown that punishment and confrontational training techniques are more likely to lead to fear, avoidance, and increased aggression.” – Merck Veterinary Manual
So, to set you and your cat up for success, focus on praise and reward your feline friend for properly scratching the right thing and gently but firmly redirect them if they scratch the wrong thing.
“Timing is everything in training your cat. Cats have short attention spans, so the reward must come immediately (within seconds) of the behavior, or your cat may not know what it’s for.” - Humane Society of Huron Valley
Invest in a Good Scratching Post
In order to give your cat something to scratch that you can accept being torn apart, you want to get them a scratching post. You might be thinking, I already have one.
Many pet parents tend to think a scratching post is a scratching post is a scratching post, right? Well, not really. Believe it or not there is a little bit of an art and science behind getting the right scratching post for your cat.
It comes down to making sure you get your cat a scratching post they'll love instead of just a scratching post. There’s actually a big difference.
So, uh. What does that mean?
It basically means knowing how to pick a great scratching post for your cat. There are four features you should consider when purchasing a scratching post.
First, you need a scratching post that is firm in its position. Cats like to scratch things like furniture and doorframes because among other things, they're solid and don't wiggle or tip over, much like the trees and other things they would scratch out in the wild.
Second, make sure the scratching post is size appropriate. Kittens can get away with using a small post, but as your kitten grows into a beautiful adult cat, their post needs to be long enough that they can get a good stretch while scratching. So, the larger the cat, the longer the post needs to be.
Third, the position of the post is also important. Many cats like a scratching post that stands tall and vertical, just like those trees. Others, though prefer a horizontal surface they can scratch. Some like to have both options (my two kittens, Luca and Fabri, for example love to scratch their posts just as much as they do the carpet).
As I write this post, the boys have successfully completed the first few modules of “Scratching Etiquette 101” training.
If you've had your cat for a good while and you've seen what they like to scratch, you'll be able to pick something that comes close.
Alternatively, if you're working with a new kitten, a new foster, or a new adoption, though, you'll just have to see what they prefer, so give them both options to try out.
Finally, you have to consider texture. Cats can be picky, and they'll often have a preference. As we all know, though, those feline friends of ours can't tell us what they want. So, you need to try out a few different options and see what they like.
Raw wood. Some cats enjoy a good 4x4 post or some wood mimicking what you find outdoors. You have to be careful with this and keep an eye out for splinters stuck in your fur baby's paws, though, so this isn't always the best idea.
Carpet. A wooden post wrapped in carpet gives a knobby and textured surface they can scratch at, and the fibers can be satisfying to catch and pull. The carpet will fray after a while, but it's easy enough to get some replacement, and the core post will be solid.
Sisal. Sisal is that fibrous stuff that looks like coiled-up rope and is often used to make things like baskets and decorative items. Some cats absolutely love it.
Cardboard. Sometimes, the simplest option is the best. There are a ton of different cardboard options, various stiff boards made of interlocking triangles and dense paper that offers a unique scratching experience each time and is cheap and easy to replace.
So, you'll need to try out combinations of position, material, and type of scratching post. Sometimes, a scratching smorgasbord is the best you can hope for; other times, you need to buy, try, and return things until you find the one your kitty loves.
Put the Post in the Proper Place
Proper post-positioning produces perfectly pleasant purrs. (Say that 10 times fast!)
Putting your scratching post in the right place is just as, if not more, important than the post itself. Cats use scratching to mark their territory, and they're going to want to mark the places they hang out the most.
Often, that means the places where you hang out the most. Putting the post next to your favorite chair – or even next to whatever they like to scratch at – can be a great option.
You can't just move it around from place to place, either. Put it in a place and leave it for at least a few days. You need to give your cat time to realize it's there, investigate it, and give it some experimental scratches.
If you've also been training them not to scratch, for example, your furniture, then you'll need to incentivize scratching the right thing.
Playing with your cat near the post, offering them treats after scratching it, and giving them pets and praise will all help a lot.
Make Scratching the Wrong Thing Less Pleasant
Above, I mentioned that punishment generally doesn't work. What you can do, though, is make it less pleasant to scratch the things you want to protect, like your furniture.
Not through active monitoring and punishment, though; through a passive defense system.
The Foil Option
If you've tested different materials, maybe you've found one your cat doesn't like. You can wrap chair legs and other furniture in that material to make them avoid it. Some cats don’t like foil, so if they are surface scratchers, you can lay foil down to cover the area.
The Double-sided Tape Alternative
There is also the double-sided tape option, which makes it a lot less pleasant for a cat to scratch at the surface. When using double sided tape, always make sure you test it in a small area to make sure it doesn’t leave any residue behind when it’s removed.
Clear Plastic Panels
You can also find clear plastic panels that are sticky on one side or use pins to hold them in place. These panels can be cut to size and stuck to almost any location.
They work by only giving your cat a slippery surface to claw at, which doesn’t give them the same experience as digging their claws in, so they tend to look for other areas to scratch.
Just like double sided tape, these should be tested to ensure they don’t damage the surface you plan to cover.
It can also be worthwhile to try various sprays. There are a couple of options you can use, both to dissuade scratching the wrong thing and promote scratching the right thing.
Feliscratch is a product that entices cats to scratch the surface it's on. It's made by the people who make Feliway the pheromone spray that helps soothe stressed cats. While I’ve used Feliway with success, I have not personally tried Feliscratch.
A variety of scents can dissuade a cat from scratching a surface. Rubbing a bit of citrus peel, some coffee grounds, or something like citronella or eucalyptus on the surface can keep them away, though you want to make sure your scratching post isn't directly next to the object you've slathered in the bad scent.
These are often not terribly effective, though; there are other options, including training, that work better.
Consider Nail Caps
Nail caps are little plastic caps that go over each claw on a cat's paw.
They adhere with glue, and they make it impossible for your fur baby to scratch with those sharp little claws. I wrote a bit about them here when discussing trimming kitty nails.
Nail caps fall off when your kitty sheds the outer sheathing of their claws, and some cats are determined to bite them off (I’m thinking of my kitty nephew here).
Long story short, nail caps are something you have to stay on top of to ensure all nails are capped at all times.
While nail caps can help prevent damage to the furniture and other items your cat won't stop scratching, they don't actually stop or redirect the scratching behavior.
As such, they're a temporary-at-best solution to damage while you work on training them in other ways.
Work on Training
It all seems to bring us back to the beginning of this post. Training is the root of all desirable behaviors in cats, dogs, and other furry friends.
To train a cat, positive reinforcement is best. So, here's what you do.
First, set them up for success. Make sure you’ve offered your kitty acceptable places to scratch before training begins. Giving them options and sprinkling some catnip on the scratchers can help attract your fur baby to use them.
Second, watch them like a hawk. If they're going to scratch something you don't want them to, gently redirect them. It can be as simple as picking them up and moving them to the scratching post. You may also need to relocate when you currently have posts placed.
Third, whenever you see them scratch at the scratching post, be there ready to reward them. You want some kind of reward they enjoy.
It might be a high-value treat, it might be a bit of playtime or some belly rubs, or it might be a dash of catnip. Whatever the reward is, it needs to be in conjunction with or directly after the behavior you want to encourage.
The more delay there is, the less likely your cat is to associate the behavior and the reward.
Keep this up for a while, and eventually, your fur baby will learn what to scratch and what not to scratch.
If you’re having trouble add some of the deterrents we talked about earlier, you may even want to start with some of these in place. I know I make it sound simple, but it's really quite effective if you’re consistent.
How I’m Putting these Techniques to Use
When you bring a new fur baby into your home it’s good practice to keep them in a smaller space, such as a bedroom for an adjustment period.
This is especially important if you have other fur babies in your house as the newbie could be caring something contagious. This transition space is the perfect place to implement some of the recommendations above to help identify your new baby’s scratching preferences.
If you follow us on social media, you may be aware that we adopted two kittens a few months ago (Luca AKA “Luca Puka” and Fabrizio AKA “Fabri” or “Monkey bird.” I know, monkey bird doesn’t exactly sound like a pet name for a cat but it’s a loooong story I will someday get to here in my blog.) We’re in full swing training mode with our boys.
Knocking on wood with one hand as I type this, thus far we’ve had no furniture scratching though we have had some furniture climbing and some carpet scratching.
In their transition space (a bedroom), we started them off with a small, carpeted cat tree, a sisal scratching post, and a cardboard horizontal scratcher.
During their confined time (which lasted a while as they had some health issues) we monitored their usage of each. They seemed to enjoy having a variety of options and your kitty may too, so if you only have one type that your kitty doesn’t consistently use, it’s time to branch out with more variety.
Before they were given free reign, we purchased several more scratchers of various textures and placed them around the house. By giving them lots of options in different places they’ve been doing a great job scratching on the intended objects.
To combat the furniture climbing issue we relocated a tall scratching post, which they are now using to climb to get to the top of the sofa instead of using the sofa itself. I did buy some of the clear plastic panels I mentioned above, so we have a backup if the climbing resumes.
We also do plenty of praise whenever they scratch on any “approved” surface and when they scratch the area rug, I scoop them up and put them on a horizontal scratcher. So far so good, but we have to stay on top of the training while they continue to grow and explore higher places.
Tell me about your kitties, are they vertical or horizontal scratchers? What type of texture do they prefer? Do you have any other tips or tricks that have worked with your fur babies?
Wondering about other cat behaviors? Scratching is one thing, but what about kneading your tummy when you're trying to sleep? Making biscuits is an adorable behavior, and you might be surprised at the reasons behind it.
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).