Why Do Cats Scratch?

Why do cats scratch? We review all types of scratching — from a cat inappropriately scratching furniture to a cat who's scratching pets, people or himself.

A cat looking up from scratching the couch.
A cat looking up from scratching the couch. Photography © noreefly | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

When our cats scratch rugs and furniture, it can be very frustrating to us, their pet parents. We find ourselves wondering, “Why do cats scratch?” Cats absolutely need to scratch, but there are ways to protect the household furniture in the process. And on a different note, why do cats scratch their people, other pets and themselves? Let’s take a look.

Why do cats scratch rugs, furniture, etc.? Understand the behavior before redirecting.

A gray kitten on a couch, licking with his tongue out.
Why do cats scratch? Understanding the behavior. Photography by 5second/Thinkstock.

In order to effectively redirect destructive cat scratching, let’s look at some answers to the question, “Why do cats scratch?” For starters, cat scratching helps keep a cat’s nails trimmed. The scent glands located on the bottom of their paws enable them to leave a mark for other cats. Cats scratch to mark and define their territory — with the visual shredding serving as a “this is my turf” declaration to other animals. Cats also scratch to release excess energy and often incorporate scratching when they stretch after a nap.

How to stop inappropriate cat scratching — don’t punish!

Now that we’ve got some answers to, “Why do cats scratch destructively?” how do we keep cats from scratching where we don’t want them to?

Some people wrongfully resort to punishing their cats — or even worse, having them declawed — in an effort to save their furniture. Although using punishment may temporarily stop cats from scratching the furniture, it can also result in some negative consequences. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, professor emeritus of animal behavior and behavioral pharmacology at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, does not recommend relying on punishment to correct unwanted feline behaviors.

“Punishments, such as squirt bottles, scat mats or shaking cans with coins inside, cause stress in the household,” says Dr. Dodman. “The cat doesn’t understand why the owner is doing these things. She learns how to avoid punishment by scratching when the owner is not in view. These punishments can also lead cats to not trust their owners. There is always a more positive way. It is always better to teach a cat what we want her to do instead.”

How to stop inappropriate cat scratching effectively

Dr. Dodman favors using reward-based training methods — including clicker training — to effectively teach cats to scratch more appropriate objects, such as sturdy scratching posts. Clicker training, a science-based training system, rewards and reinforces animals for desired behaviors. It is based on the premise that animals are more apt to repeat a behavior when it is immediately followed by a reward or a positive consequence.

Be patient and consistent. Some cats quickly change their habits; others take a little longer to catch on. Regardless, once your cat is conditioned to scratch the post, her preference for it will be long lasting.

Select a scratching post or cat tree that is tall and stable enough for your cat to stretch his entire body — a minimum of 30 inches. You may need to try different textures before you find one that truly pleases your cat. Many scratchers and trees are made from carpet remnants, but many cats prefer cardboard, sisal or natural wood.

Why do cats scratch people?

Now that we’ve answered, “Why do cats scratch furniture, carpets, etc.?” you might be wondering, “Why do cats scratch their people?”

Although cat aggression is often taken less seriously than dog aggression, aggressive cats can be formidable and inflict considerable damage and infection. They can also cause cat scratch fever, a usually benign but potentially serious infectious disease that causes flu-like symptoms.

When it comes to cat-to-human aggression, the problem almost always begins with the human. Kittens are often played with in an aggressive manner by one or more people, who think it’s cute and fun. Adult cats don’t realize that they’ve “outgrown” this type of play and may continue it. However, pain and other medical conditions can also trigger feline aggression, so be sure to make an appointment with your veterinarian to discuss this.

Indoor enrichment can help prevent boredom. Window perches, scratching posts, climbing trees and regular playtime can make a big difference in a cat’s behavior.

Why do cats scratch other pets?

Another question when it comes to cat scratching is, “Why do cats scratch other cats or pets?” In a multi-pet household, there exists a social hierarchy, and cats are very territorial. Understanding these instincts will help you see the world through your cat’s eyes, and understand why certain situations elicit certain aggressive reactions.

Usually, this cat fighting is harmless. Keep an eye out for any injuries, or the persistent bullying of one cat to the point of making him miserable. Your veterinarian can be helpful, and may even suggest an appointment with a veterinary behaviorist.

Why do cats scratch themselves?

Lastly, why do cats scratch, or itch, themselves? If your cat is itching or scratching himself excessively, a number of feline skin problems could be at play.

  1. Ear mites
  2. Dermatitis 
  3. Fleas
  4. Food allergies

Get your cat to the vet for proper diagnosis.

Thumbnail: Photography © noreefly | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

About the author

Writer Elizabeth Vecsi lives in the Hudson Valley with her five cats. Over the past two decades, she has been an editor and writer for The Whole Cat Journal, Cornell’s CatWatch and Tufts’ Catnip.

Read more about cat behavior on Catster.com:

2 thoughts on “Why Do Cats Scratch?”

  1. Any suggestions to get my cats from scratching furniture?
    They seem to do it at night when we go to bed or not home

  2. Pingback: How to Stop a Cat Scratching Carpet – Cute funny cat kitten pictures videos

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