Cat Claws and Cat Scratching Behavior: A Helpful Research Article

By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley October 06, 2018

If you own a cat, you know that maintaining your cat’s claws and giving them the opportunity to scratch is important to their health and well-being, but you also know that scratching can be a problematic behavior. Cats use their claws for a variety of purposes, so understanding how and why cats use their claws can help pet owners better manage scratching behavior and allow you both to live harmoniously together. In this article, we will talk about the anatomy of cat claws, the purpose of cat claws and scratching, and how to encourage appropriate scratching behavior. We will also discuss the controversial declawing procedure that is sometimes used to prevent problem scratching. Keep reading to learn more about your cat!

How Do Cat Claws Work?

Domestic cats are one of the many species of cats that have retractable claws (Gonyea & Ashworth, 1975; Homberger et al., 2009). Most big cats also have retractable claws, like lions, leopards, and tigers (Homberger et al., 2009). When cat paws are relaxed, their claws are held within a pocket in each toe on their paw. This keeps the claws safely put away until they need them. When cats flex their paws, their claws come out of the pocket to allow them to be put to use (Gonyea & Ashworth, 1975; Homberger et al., 2009).

Claws are an integral part of a cat’s anatomy because cats are digitigrade walkers, meaning they walk on their tiptoes, unlike humans who are plantigrade walkers, meaning we walk flat on our feet (Feldhamer, 2007). There are blood vessels and nerves that flow into cat claws, known as the quick. This helps communicate information from the outside world to the cat’s brain to help them navigate their surroundings. The nail itself helps to protect the quick from harm. The nail is made of a protein called keratin, which is the same protein that makes our human nails. The nails continue to grow and create new layers, which means that as the outermost layer of the nail becomes dull and damaged due to use, a newer layer is forming beneath it. When it is time, this outer layer will shed off, leaving a new, sharper nail in its place (Homberger et al., 2009).

Why Do Cats Have Claws?

Cat claws are important in defense, hunting, and communication (Landsberg, 1991; AVMA, 2016). As the nails continue to grow and shed, cats will scratch surfaces to help condition the claw to be stronger and sharper (Landsberg, 1991;AVMA, 2016). As the nail grows, the sharp point at the end becomes more dangerous and is thus used primarily for predator and territorial defense (AVMA, 2016).

The claws also help cats hunt for prey, often using their claws to trap prey then biting to kill it. Another very important way that cats use their claws is for communication with other cats (Landsberg, 1991; AVMA, 2016). In the wild, cats use their claws to scratch surfaces like tree trunks or branches. The physical act of scratching on a tree causes ripped tree bark and scratch marks, leaving a visual signal to other cats. Cats also have scent glands on their paws, so scratching a surface leaves a scent signal behind as well. These signals help to communicate to other cats that this territory is theirs (Landsberg, 1991; AVMA, 2016). Cats will continue visiting the same scratching locations over and over to freshen these messages about their territory (Hart & Hart, 2013).

What Types Of Cat Scratchers Exist?

Even though our pet cats are far removed from their wild ancestors, they still maintain this scratching behavior when they are living in our homes, which can create a conflict between cat owners and their cats (Landsberg, 1991). Cats will often choose scratching locations that they deem most appropriate for communicating their territory to others (Hart & Hart, 2013; Seksel, 2015). This may be based on location in the house, preferred texture, or both. Most often, cats find that pieces of furniture, like couches and armchairs, are the most appropriate place to leave communication signals (Hart & Hart 2013).

To help prevent conflicts between cats and their owners, cat scratchers were invented to allow cats to exhibit this natural behavior when being kept indoors (Landsberg, 1991). There are many types of scratchers available commercially including multi-level cat trees, single scratching posts of various sizes, and scratching mats that can be placed on the floor or hung on doors or walls. Scratchers come in a variety of materials such as wood, sisal rope, corrugated cardboard, and carpeting. These materials really allow cats to dig their nails in and mimic materials they may use in a more natural setting (Landsberg, 1991).

Because cats have evolved to scratch on trees and tree branches, they prefer tall and sturdy scratching posts that allow them to do a full body stretch as they scratch vigorously (Landsberg, 1991; Seksel, 2015). Any scratching post or mat you buy for your cat should be at least 2 ½ feet tall or longer. Be sure to provide them both vertical and horizontal scratching surfaces in a variety of textures to give them ample opportunity to find their preferred scratcher (Seksel, 2015).

Providing multiple multi-level cat trees is a great option for providing enrichment and scratching surfaces for your cat. Cat trees provide a variety of scratching surfaces for your cat, both vertical and horizontal, and often in a variety of textures. They also encourage a cat’s natural instincts to climb, scratch, play, and rest. When placed near windows, cat trees also give cats the opportunity to observe birds and squirrels outside (Seksel, 2015).

Another great and inexpensive option for cat scratchers is corrugated cardboard scratchers. These are readily available anywhere cat supplies are sold, and they can also be bought in bulk. They are rectangular areas of cardboard that give cats a horizontal, vertical, or slanted surface to scratch on. Many cats love to use these and they are easy to place around the house.

With any scratcher you provide, it’s important to replace only when they are destroyed and no longer usable. Scratchers are most appealing to cats when there is some slight to moderate wear on them, as this serves as a visual cue of their territory and will encourage the cat to continue to use it (Landsberg, 1991). Once the materials are destroyed, it is time to replace the scratcher or to reupholster it with new scratching materials. Sisal rope and carpeting can be bought inexpensively at home improvement stores.

How To Get Your Cat To Scratch Appropriate Items

Providing your house cat with scratching posts most appropriate for their natural biology will hopefully prevent them from scratching on your furniture or carpets. However, once a cat starts scratching on a certain object, it can be difficult to redirect them to something appropriate as they will feel the need to renew the communication signals in order to display their territory (Hart & Hart, 2013). It is not impossible, though, and there are plenty of ways to encourage your cat to scratch on appropriate objects in your home! Cats are very trainable, especially if you start as soon as you bring home a new cat or kitten. The trick is to have plenty of appropriate objects for your cat to scratch, to encourage them to use them, and then reward them when they do (Landsberg, 1991; Hart & Hart, 2013). If you have more than one cat, each cat should be given his or her own scratching materials to reduce competition (Seksel, 2015). The more scratching materials you give your cat around the house, the less likely they are to scratch inappropriately on furniture or carpets. Put the scratchers in areas of the house where you and your cat spend the most time. This increases the chances that your cat will use these instead of finding rugs or couches to scratch on (Landsberg, 1991; Seksel, 2015).

To encourage your cat to use any scratching surface, rub a little catnip on it. This triggers a cat’s natural instincts to scratch that surface, which will leave behind their own scent and cause them to continue to return to that scratcher to freshen the signals (Landsberg, 1991). The more you do this on appropriate scratching surfaces, the less your cat will use inappropriate scratching surfaces. You can also place cat scratchers in the areas your cat is already scratching (Landsberg, 1991). For example, if your cat has decided the corner of the couch is his or her favorite place to scratch, place a vertical cat scratcher in front of it and rub some catnip on it. This will help redirect your cat’s behavior to an appropriate surface. If you catch your cat scratching inappropriately on furniture or carpets, do not yell or punish them. Simply interrupt and redirect this behavior to an appropriate surface. If you have a good bond with your cat, you can physically put them on an appropriate scratcher and move their paws to mimic scratching. This will help leave their scent on that scratcher, encouraging them to return. Sometimes mimicking the motion will also cause them to start scratching on their own (Hart & Hart, 2013). Do not do this if your cat is not comfortable with you touching them this way, as this will create a negative association with the scratcher and be detrimental to them using it regularly. Other ways to encourage your cat to use appropriate scratchers is to frequently pet or brush them on that surface or to leave treats on it. This will redirect your cat’s attention to this area and then hopefully encourage them to create a positive association with the scratcher and to want to mark it as their territory by scratching (Landsberg, 1991).

How Does Cat Nail Trimming Help?

Another action you can take to ensure minimal damage to your furniture while you work on redirecting the issue is to keep your cat’s nails trimmed. If you trim your cat’s nails every 2-3 weeks, this will keep the ends dull. Trimming cat nails is an easy task that can be done by any trained cat owner.

The most important thing when trimming a cat’s nails is to avoid hitting the quick (Swiderski, 2002). The quick contains blood vessels and nerves and can be painful to the cat if you trim the nails too close to the quick or if you hit it. Hitting the quick will also cause the nail to bleed. If you look closely at your cat’s nails, you can identify the location of the quick, as it is typically a pinkish color at the base of the nail closest to the end of the toe. A cat’s nails have a natural curve to them. If you cut the nails just before the curve of the nail, typically you are far enough away from the quick to avoid pain or injury, but the nail is still cut short enough to keep them dull and prevent damage to your belongings (HSUS, 2015). If you are interested in learning how to cut your cat’s nails, ask your local veterinarian or cat expert for a demonstration.

What Are The Pros And Cons Of Declawing?

One common (but controversial) solution to cat scratching is declawing. Declawing is a veterinary procedure that involves amputating the toes of a cat to remove the claws entirely and prevent them from re-growing (AVMA, 2016; Martell-Moran et al., 2017). Some people only declaw the front paws while some have the procedure done on the front and rear paws. (AVMW, 2016; Fritscher & Ha, 2016).  Some countries have banned this procedure altogether, but it is still a common procedure in the United States (Fritscher & Ha, 2016). Declawing is considered to be an inhumane procedure because it removes the cat’s ability to perform a natural and highly motivated behavior: scratching. It has also been shown that declawing leads to chronic pain and the development of other behavioral problems (Martell-Moran et al., 2017). Most cat professionals, including veterinarians, are against this procedure and there are groups working diligently to get it banned within the United States (The Paw Project).

Because cats are digitigrade walkers, meaning they walk on their toes, amputating their toes forces cats to essentially relearn how to walk. This change in form or attempts to walk on fresh wounds can cause lasting issues to their musculoskeletal conformation and lead to chronic pain, the development of arthritis, and other joint issues (Martell-Moran et al., 2017).

A study by Martell-Moran and colleagues (2017) found that many cats that have been declawed end up with remaining fragments in their paw or have bone regrowth, leading to additional pain or complications affecting their overall welfare and increasing the chances of developing additional behavioral issues. The chronic pain caused by this procedure causes cats to develop issues such as increased aggression, litter box issues, over grooming, and sensitivity to being handled by humans (Martell-Moran et al., 2017). Declawed cats are more likely to bite humans when they feel threatened or fearful compared to non-declawed cats. This is likely due to chronic pain and also because the cat’s first line of defense has been removed. This causes the cat to feel more vulnerable  and make them more likely to bite or display other aggressive behaviors. It is also common for declawed cats to develop issues with using the litter box. Immediately after the surgery, it is painful for cats to dig in the litter box. After the initial wounds have healed, cats continue to experience chronic pain due to the changes in their gait and musculoskeletal conformation, which is exacerbated with digging or squatting in the litter box. This creates a negative association with using the litter box and causes them to start eliminating elsewhere in the house. The chronic pain can also cause them to excessively groom themselves, leading to loss of fur and painful sores (Martell-Moran et al., 2017).

These issues increase the chances of cats being relinquished to animal shelters or euthanized. However, despite these issues with the declawing procedure, most cat professionals do agree that declawing can be considered a last resort for cats that continue to cause destruction in their owner’s house, use their claws aggressively towards humans, and are at risk of being relinquished to a shelter or euthanized (AVMA, 2016; Martell-Moran, et al., 2017). To avoid the complications associated with declawing or destruction to your house due to inappropriate scratching behavior, it is recommended to train your cat to scratch appropriate items and to seek the help of a trainer or behaviorist if you are having issues.

In this article we have covered a lot of topics that are important for cat owners to know in order to provide a happy household for your feline companion. Cats have an instinctual need to scratch. This behavior is important for their overall physiology, from conditioning their nails to stretching and working the muscles in their body. Scratching is also a major form of communication for cats, leaving behind visual and olfactory cues that a place is part of their territory.

Cats can be easily trained to scratch appropriate items, such as cat trees and scratching posts. The trick is to provide them a variety of choices and to encourage them to use these items using positive reinforcement. Be sure to provide enough scratching materials for the total number of cats in your house to reduce competition over resources. Finally, if your cat is scratching your furniture, there are steps you can take to reduce the damage done while you work on redirecting this behavior. You can keep your cat’s nails cut short and you can manage the environment to prevent the use of furniture as a scratcher and encourage appropriate scratching behavior. If all else fails consult with an animal trainer or behaviorist. Declawing your cat should be an absolute last resort, as this procedure can lead to a variety of complications and other behavioral issues.

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