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Cats' affection leads to painful kneading

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Q: When my cats are affectionate, they knead with the claws and lick like they're in a trance. Because they still have their claws, this is painful and they soak whatever they're working on - which is often the bed covers. What causes this behavior? I hate to punish them for being affectionate. Do you have advice?

J. G., Warner Robbins, Ga.

A: Indeed, this is all about affection. So, I certainly hope you would never consider punishing them for expressing how much they care in cat language. Sometimes particularly expressive cats get really excited, some might even say emotional, and they drool. However, it's unusual for cats to knead with their nails extended. Cats have retractable nails, and typically in play or when expressing their affection there's no reason to use their nails.

"I can't tell you why these cats didn't learn as kittens not to extend their claws if they knead; perhaps they were taken away from their mother before they had the chance to learn," said Dr. Ilona Rodan, past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. She offers various possible solutions. "As long as the cats never go outside, you can keep the nails cut short, so they can use their nails but they won't scratch you. Another idea is to walk away when the cats extend their nails. After all, they're doing this to express affection to you. They want you. Hopefully, over time they'll learn you don't appreciate being scratched. Also, put a blanket that you can wash frequently over the bed covers.''

You can try clicker training the cats to scratch without using their claws. Click a clicker (available online and at pet stores) and pair the clicker sound with treats. After the cats understand that click is a great thing, click when a cat is doing something you like. Clicker training is how cats that appear on TV or in movies are trained. Click and reward when the cats begin scratching without their claws coming out. Ignore the behavior you don't want. Learn more in "Clicker Training for Cats,'' by Karen Pryor.

Rodan warns that it's also possible these cats may be bored and scratching because they've learned to get your attention, even if it's an angry response. It's important to play with your cats using interactive toys (such as a Cat Dancer, or fishing pole-type dog with feathers) at least once daily, so there's plenty of pounce time.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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