How to Stop Destructive Scratching

Cats don’t scratch just to ruin your furniture! Scratching is a behavioral and physical need and cannot be eliminated completely. 

Cats scratch to stretch their bodies, condition their claws (not just sharpen them but keep them healthy), and to communicate with others in their environment. Along with the visible marks, they use pheromones from their paw pads to leave information about who they are. These signals can help decrease stress and tension between individuals. 

Chocolate point cat laying on side while scratching a sisal rope covered post.
Photo Credit: Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay.com

Encourage Appropriate Scratching 

To prevent and stop destructive scratching, the first step is getting your cat using something else.

The easiest way to choose a scratching option your cat will use is to pay attention to what and where they’ve been choosing to scratch. (If you’re trying to be proactive with a new cat, offer options.) 

Answer these questions. Is where they’ve been scratching:

  • Vertical, horizontal, or angled?
  • Narrow/edged (a post or corner) or broad/flat (a wall or floor)? 
  • Hard or soft? Smooth or rough?
  • In a particular area? (near a doorway, resting area, where everyone hangs out)
  • Near something they want access to? (another pet/person, outdoors, or food)

Based on your answers, choose a scratching post, pad, or structure that takes your cat’s preferences into account. Ensure it is:

  • Tall or long enough for a full-body stretch
  • Stable and not wobbly when their full weight is against it 
  • Covered in desirable material – sisal rope is popular with many cats, though your cat might prefer softer (carpet or cardboard) or harder (wood) 
  • Placed near where your cat has already been scratching, with room for them to move all around it

Encourage use of the new option by rubbing it with catnip (or other scent enrichment), sprinkling treats around it, and dangling a favorite toy on it during interactive play. 

Discourage Inappropriate Scratching

Only after you’ve created some new scratching options, and seen your cat start using them, can you start deterring use of other areas. You won’t have success otherwise and will just create new problem spots. 

Deterrents make a particular area unappealing to scratch. They can’t be scary or highly stressful; this can easily cause other issues. Instead, deterrents just make your cat want to look for a different option. And luckily, you’ve just created something very appealing nearby!

  1. If possible, keep your cat away from areas they have shown interest in scratching by closing doors or blocking areas. 
  2. Clean areas that have been scratched to remove the scent marks associated with scratching. In some cases, you can add a different (synthetic) pheromone, such as Feliway, on the area to change your cat’s association with the area from scratching to facial rubbing.
  3. Fully cover all affected areas with something that is less fun to scratch than the new scratching option:
    • Double-sided tape
    • A tight fitting sheet or furniture cover with a different/smooth texture (usually has to be very tightly covered)
    • Plastic, such as a carpet protector (film or hard plastic), shower curtain, table cloth (again, tightly fitted), or hard plastic sheet (for walls/floor)
  4. Put something on the ground to deter standing in a certain place, such as an upside-down carpet protector.

Deterrents have to be very thorough! If you don’t do enough, your cat may shift a little to one side and continue what they’ve always done. 

Eventually you should be able to remove deterrents, but make sure your cat has been using their new scratching options for several weeks to months first (longer for longer established habits. When you do remove them, do so very gradually.

What Won’t Help 

Avoid these common pitfalls!

  • Holding their paws to the post: Don’t try to “show your cat” or force them to use a scratcher. 
  • Punishing scratching without providing options: You can’t stop scratching entirely (without compromising your cat’s welfare). 
  •  Using a spray bottle (or similar tools): Many attempts to punish scratching only teach your cat to wait until you aren’t looking. Read more about the problem with spray bottles.
  • Keeping scratchers out of sight: Most cats want to scratch where the action is. Making them go to another room isn’t going to help. 
  • Declawing: Removing your cat’s toe tips (this is what declawing is) can have significant behavioral and physical consequences. Learn more at Fear Free Happy Homes

Cats need to scratch, but you don’t need to have damaged furniture, floors, or walls. By providing for your cat’s needs and preferences, and gently deterring them from alternatives, you can have a more harmonious, cat-friendly home.

If you need help with your cat’s scratching, consider scheduling a private behavior consultation.