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Gwen Bailey


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Destructive Behaviour in Cats

Some cats may tear chair arms with their claws, scratch patches of wallpaper off the wall, or shred stair carpets.

Most cats do not cause this type of damage, so why do others feel the need to behave like this in our homes?

Scratching has several functions, one of the most important being the sharpening of claws so that a cat’s hunting weapons remain efficient.

Scratching also leaves scent marks in a territory – secretions of watery sweat from between the cat’s pads leave a scent message on top of the physical marks.

Cats usually scratch outside, choosing trees or posts – wood is just the right texture to allow claws to dig in and be drawn down, pulling off the old claw sheath, to reveal the sharp point of the new one. If you look at a regular scratching place you will find these pieces of sheath embedded in the surface.

Why do cats scratch inside our homes as well as outdoors?

There could be several reasons. Sorting out why the cat is scratching will help you to decide on a solution (see later).

  1. Exercising the claws and sharpening the points.
    Indoor cats with no access to outside will still need to perform this natural behaviour. If nothing suitable is provided, they will find something in the house that has an appropriate surface.

  2. Habit or enjoyment.
    Some cats may have got into the habit of sharpening their claws indoors and have not transferred this behaviour outside as they matured. Others enjoy the texture of carpets or furniture coverings, and the shape of furniture may be very inviting as scratch points. Some cats seem to enjoy the act of scratching and it can sometimes be a precursor to, or part of, excited play.

  3. Boredom/curiosity.
    A fascination with the wall paper may occur after a loose piece encourages play, or an accidental grab at the wall results in an exciting game of paper removal, with the bonus of chasing all the little pieces that fall off. It may have an additional benefit in that owners suddenly start to take notice and give the cat attention, albeit angry attention.

  4. Communication with other cats.
    Some cats will scratch more when in the presence of other cats. Just what they are trying to convey is not well understood, but this type of scratching may be done to communicate with other cats in the vicinity.

  5. Increasing their feeling of security.
    When cats feel vulnerable, they will try to rub their own scent on prominent places in a room so that they feel more secure. While they may not resort to spraying (using urine as a scent mark), they may use the scents produced by scratching to do this instead. If the cat is trying to increase its feeling of security, many surfaces may be scratched, particularly those in strategic places such as edges of chairs nearest to doorways.

What can you do?

Don’t blame the cat
First of all, realise that the cat is not doing this out of spite or in an attempt to cause destruction on purpose.

Provide a scratching post
It is important to provide an outlet for claw sharpening in the form of a scratch post, if your cat is an indoor cat, or has got into the habit of sharpening its claws inside the house.

Place the post in front of the damaged area. Gently wipe the cats’ paws down the post to leave some scent on it and show the cat what to do. Do this several times when the post is new.

If you catch your cat in the act of scratching elsewhere, carry it to the post and encourage it to scratch there instead.

Providing enough exercise
If curiosity or the satisfaction of clawing soft furnishings is encouraging the cat to cause damage, you will need to give it another outlet for its energies. Try playing with your cat more often, little and often throughout the day, providing toys which offer an outlet for their hunting abilities.

If your cat attacks the wallpaper, you can try changing the type of paper you use (cats seem to prefer paper which has a raised texture) or painting the area the cat usually uses.

Don’t encourage the cat by giving it attention when it is scratching.

Improve security
Where scratching is used as a form of marking behaviour, the cat may be feeling insecure. The solution will rely on identifying the cause of this stress or insecurity.

Possible causes are other cats coming into the house, conflict between resident cats, changes within the household, and fear of something outside.

You may be able to help your cat feel more confident by:

  • Closing the cat flap, or fitting a selective type with keeps strange cats out.

  • Looking carefully at relationships between cats – providing some resting places high up to let the cat relax, while still being able to watch what is going on, will improve security.

  • Restricting your cat’s access within the house, and concentrating on making it feel secure in one or two rooms

  • Using your cat’s own scent to make it feel more secure. Cats use their cheek glands to mark their territory. To help them feel more secure, take a soft cloth and wipe it around the cat’s face.
    Dab the cloth around the room where you have seen your cat rubbing and where it scratches. (There are also manufactured scents available that work in the same way – ask your vet for details.)

  • Never punish the cat. This will make it feel even more insecure. You should be viewed as a source of security by your cat, rather than as an additional threat.

Nervous cats are likely to find any new challenge threatening

When we re-decorate our homes or replace the furniture, we inadvertently remove all the cat’s scents, which have made it feel secure.

We then replace them with strong smelling carpets, suits, paint, etc. which can be quite disturbing to a scent-orientated cat.

When re-decorating, it may be worth keeping the cat out of the new room for a while until the new smells have mingled with other familiar smells in the house and helping your cat replace its scent using the method given above.

Please see What is my Cat Thinking? for more on scratching

Also see Gwen Bailey's articles on Pets on the Move,
Socialising your Kitten
, Socialising a Litter of Kittens

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