For cats, scratching isn’t just second nature; it’s actually first nature. That is, it’s one of their primal, instinctual urges. And it’s not just a kitten behavior—it’s something that felines do their whole lives. As a cat parent, you might not have spent much time thinking about this normal cat behavior. Or maybe the question, “Why do cats scratch” keeps you tossing and turning at night. No matter which is the case, we’re going to let you in on a little cat psychology to explain the what, why, where, how and when of cat scratching.
The Big Question: Why Do Cats Scratch?
Cats scratch for a variety of reasons, according to Jennifer Conrad, DVM and founder and director of the Paw Project, the world's largest nonprofit dedicated solely to ending the practice of declawing.
- It relieves anxiety
- It's a form of exercise
- It hones their nails
- It strengthens and stretches their muscles
- It marks territory
In terms of cat psychology, scratching is a vital part of a feline’s everyday life, and one important function is to send signals to other animals. In your home, “Cats scratch furniture because they are marking territory in places where you sit,” explains Dr. Conrad. In the pads of the paws are scent glands that release a kitty’s scent onto everything they scratch. This cat behavior is useful in the wild, because it provides both a visual and olfactory way to mark their territory.
What Do Cats Like to Scratch?
The answer to what a cat will scratch depends on whether a cat lives indoors or outside.
“Cats in the wild scratch logs," says Dr. Conrad. "They do this to mark their territory, just like domestic cats mark their territory."
When you have an indoor kitty, they have to find a substitute scratching spot. A scratching post, scratcher or cat tree is the next best thing, but if there aren’t any in the home, your cat will have to resort to anything they can find, including furniture and carpet.
How to Show Kitties Where to Scratch
Indoor-only cats and those that spend part of their time inside your house are going to scratch places they deem important for marking. So it’s up to you to appeal to their instincts using cat psychology. You can encourage good scratching behaviors by keeping several designated scratching posts or scratchers around the house.
"You have to let your cat select what material your cat wants to scratch… Cats have preferences,” Dr. Conrad explains. Most cats will go for corrugated cardboard, but some might prefer other textures, like carpet, sisal rope or wood.
How to Deter Furniture Scratching
Putting the scratchers in the right places is the next step. Try choosing scratchers of a similar material to things they tend to scratch, and place them right next to the object as an attractive alternative. If it’s carpeting, place the scratchers in the spots they tend to claw.
“Remember to try to duplicate what your cat has chosen to scratch. For instance, if your cat is scratching the wooden legs of your table, perhaps your cat's new scratching post has to be made of wood,” says Dr. Conrad.
A sprinkle of catnip on the scratchers does wonders for luring cats to the right scratching spot. To keep kitty away from furniture, she recommends using double-sided sticky tape that cats hate to feel on their paws, at least until the cat learns that it’s more fun to claw the new scratching posts.
When to Trim Their Nails
Taking good care of your cat means caring for her paws and claws, in addition to understanding cat behavior. Sometimes, you might need to trim your cat’s nails, especially if they seem to be getting stuck in things when they scratch. Dr. Conrad suggests making it a fun experience by offering treats for allowing you to touch your cat’s paws.
“Do this over and over again until the cat realizes that if he or she lets you touch the paws, and trim the nails, there's a treat involved," she says. "You have to find a treat that motivates your cat.”
She adds that declawing a cat is never a cat-friendly option and leads to many unwanted cat behaviors as a result, such as trouble using the litter box and resorting to biting as a primary defense.
“Declawing is actually a misnomer," she explains. "It would be more appropriate to call it ‘deknuckling.’ Declawing involves the amputation of the last bone in it in the cat's paws.”
This leads to problems walking and jumping as well as pain and a chance for infection, just to start with.
Why Do Cats Scratch People?
Aside from the normal cat behavior of scratching to stretch, mark territory, file nails or just to feel good, there are times when a cat might take a swipe at you or someone else.
- It can be a warning or defensive tactic when cats feel threatened. In this case, stop what you are doing—kitty wants to be left alone.
- They are playing (roughly). Your cat can catch your hand now and again during a biting and bunny-kicking frenzy if they think you are playing with them. Touching their tummies could lead to this, so beware of the belly. Dr. Conrad recommends always using a toy to play rather than your hand to avoid getting hurt. If you’ve ignored the advice and find your hand a victim of a scratching, prey-catching playtime, the best thing to do is to keep it still so that your cat realizes you aren’t playing and releases your hand.
“If your cat is scratching you in an aggressive manner,” adds Dr. Conrad, “you should speak with a certified cat behaviorist. These behaviors can be trained out of a cat.”
So that’s your cat psychology crash course on cat scratching. It might take time to teach your kitty where she can scratch, but it’s worth it—for your cat’s overall happiness and for the sake of your carpet, furniture, hands and anything else that could be a target. Be patient as you’re trying to find the texture your cat prefers to claw and keep in mind that what one might like, another might not. Here’s to healthy (and appropriate) scratching!
Fun Cat Fact: Most cats only have 18 toes total—10 in front and 8 in back.
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their BeChewy blog.