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Feline Scratching

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Scratching is normal feline behavior.  Scratching serves to shorten and condition the claws, but cats also scratch to mark their territory and to stretch.  Some cats increase their territorial marking (eg, scratching, urine marking) in situations of anxiety or conflict.  Cats can also threaten or play with a swipe of their paws.

For cats that live primarily outdoors, scratching rarely becomes a problem.  Play swatting with other cats seldom leads to injuries because cats have a fairly thick skin and coat for protection.  When play does get a little rough, most cats can sort things out between themselves.  However, occasionally, rough play or territorial fighting can lead to injuries (eg, abscesses) that require veterinary attention.

Cats that live primarily or exclusively indoors sometimes begin to scratch furniture, walls, or doors, or use their claws to climb up or hang from drapes.  Claws can also cause injuries to people when cats are overly playful or object to a particular type of handling or restraint.

With a good understanding of feline behavior and a little bit of effort, it is usually possible to prevent or avoid most scratching and clawing problems.

Scratching posts should be set up in prominent areas, with at least one close to the cat's sleeping quarters.  Each post should be tall enough for the cat to scratch while standing on its rear legs with the front legs extended, and sturdy enough so that it does not topple when scratched.  The surface texture of the post is also important.  Carpet, sisal, a piece of material from an old chair, or even bare wood may appeal to your cat.  Multiple posts covered in different materials in several locations are a good idea.

Despite the best of plans and the finest of scratching posts, some cats continue to scratch or climb in inappropriate areas.  The first step is to determine whether anxiety is a factor because sometimes anxiety and marking behavior can be related to scratching new areas.

If the cat continues to use a piece of furniture, consider moving the furniture or placing a scratching post directly in front of it.  Make sure that the surface of the post is covered with a material for which the cat has shown a preference.  Keeping the cat's nails properly trimmed or using plastic nail covers is also useful.

If your cat is using its claws to injure family members, a cause will need to be identified for the cat's behavior.  Then, an effort can be made to either modify the behavior or change the environment and eliminate the situation.  Your veterinarian can provide some advice or a referral to a veterinary behavioral specialist.


Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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