Cats have a natural need to scratch. It stretches their muscles, marks their territory, reduces stress, and removes dead layers of their nails. If you don’t provide your cat with desirable scratching surfaces and, if needed, train them to scratch where you want, they may choose to scratch the corner of your couch instead! Cats and kittens of all ages can be trained to scratch where you want, some more easily than others. Each cat’s environment and past experiences play a role in how quickly they can be trained. Here are some suggested steps to train your cat to scratch where you want:
1. Prepare your home
During training, remove access to or cover appealing surfaces where you don’t want your cats to scratch. Cats often like rough fabric. For example, if your cat is going after your recliner or couch, cover furniture with a smooth sheet or blanket, or apply double-sided sticky tape (spot test a small non-visible area first) or tin foil wrap. Cats don’t like slippery or sticky surfaces. If they are scratching the wall-to-wall carpet, cover where they are scratching with a plastic carpet runner or put a piece of furniture on top of the spot. Some household items are just too tempting for a cat. You wouldn’t leave a hamburger out in the middle of your living room floor and expect a dog not to eat it! You may need to donate your wicker hamper to a charity, or put it in the closet with the door closed.
2. Supply scratching posts
Buy or build two or more different types of scratching posts. Posts should be sturdy and tall enough to allow the cat to completely stretch – ideally 3 feet or taller. A bark-covered log, a post covered with sisal, or a burlap-covered box, or there are countless cardboard or sisal scratchers in pet retail stores. There’s a good selection of cat scratchers at Petco. Soft carpeting will not typically satisfy a cat’s need to scratch. Soft, fluffy, carpeted scratching posts rarely work, and may be one of the main causes of declawing – which is painful, inhumane, and can cause other behavior issues – because cats often don’t like the posts. Every cat is different, so if your cat ignores one post, try another material and location.
3. Scratching post locations
Place one scratching post where the cat is already clawing or likely to claw, such as the side of the couch, and another close to where he or she normally sleeps. Cats like to stretch and scratch when they first wake up. Another option is the cardboard or sisal “scratching box,” which lies flat on the floor. These are inexpensive and small enough to scatter around the house, allowing your cat easy access to an “approved” scratching spot at all times. They can wear out fairly quickly if you have an avid scratcher, and need to be replaced when too worn down — otherwise, cats may revert back to using furniture.
Next, give your cat specific instructions as to where to claw and where not to claw. Invite your cat to investigate the new scratching post and scratch it yourself to make a scratching noise. Baby kittens you can gently hold and move their paws in a scratching motion on the post. This will scent the posts and encourage exploratory clawing. Make the post a “fun” place to be. Play games with your cat on and around the post and attach hanging strings, balls and/or bouncy wire toys to it. For adult cats, you can try sprinkling catnip on the post, too. A once-a-week or so “refresher” application will keep your cat interested. Raise with praise! When kitty uses the post, reinforce her good behavior with verbal praise.
5. No punishment
When the cat claws furniture or another undesired surface, never punish cats with physical force or a loud voice. You can say “no” if it makes you feel better, and gently move or lure them to a scratching post.
As a last resort, some behaviorists say you can calmly mist room-temperature water from a spray bottle directed next to the cat, one misting spray not a stream and not multiple ones. NEVER spray the cat. The spray sound is like a cat hiss and most cats don’t like water spray. We don’t recommend this as in our experience, it makes the cat afraid of you. Also, most cats quickly figure out if you’re not standing there with the spray bottle, there’s no spray and they will scratch away! Instead, consider one or more motion-activated pet deterrent spray cans like this.
6. Nail caps like Soft Paws
Nail caps are soft vinyl nail caps that are applied to cats’ newly trimmed nails. The nail caps allow cats to scratch naturally, without harming furniture. Each application lasts about four to six weeks. Some cats take a while to get used to them, but most cat don’t seem to notice they are on. You can use the clear kind, or have fun with colors! Nail caps are only for cats that never go outside. Nail caps for cats are available at most pet supply stores and online here.
Our final tips
Supervision and repetition are key. Supervise your cat so you can praise her when she uses the scratching post, and deter her if she starts scratching something she shouldn’t. Repeat as often as possible! This is the most reliable way we know to train your cat to scratch where you want.