cat scratching

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Are you scratching your head wondering why your cat has destroyed your furniture? Cat scratching is a natural behavior that many pet owners find frustrating. This episode discusses why cats scratch, the evidence and misconceptions about declawing, and ways you can train your cats to scratch where you prefer. Dr. Gwennyth Stair of High Ridge Animal Hospital shares her tricks for using nail caps to protect your sofa and your skin.

Welcome Dr. Gwennyth Stair!

Dr. Gwennyth Stair with a cat climbing on her shoulder
Dr. Gwennyth Stair and Autumn, the clinic cat.

[00:01:04] Dr. Lancellotti: Welcome, everyone, to today’s episode of Your Vet Wants You To Know. I am very excited to talk about today’s topic because I know it is a question that is very commonly asked of family veterinarians. “Why is my cat scratching?” Cats can certainly display a scratching behavior and that can be frustrating. So today, I have a close friend and colleague with me, Dr. Gwennyth Stair, who is going to be talking about why your cat scratches and what you can do to get control of this behavior, so it is not taking over your entire life. Welcome to the episode, Dr. Stair. Thank you very much for coming and joining us on the show today. Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about your background and why this topic is something that you’re interested in talking about?

[00:01:50] Dr. Stair: So I was an overnight emergency veterinarian for about two years when I was a new graduate. So basically if it’s happened, I’ve seen it. Then, I got sick of working every holiday and every night, so I transitioned to daytime practice after buying a family practice from a retiring veterinarian in my hometown. I also do work for my county’s animal shelter, so addressing behavior issues in cats that caused them to be surrendered to the shelter has become a pet project of mine (pun intended). A common sequela of trying to fix the issue surgically (declawing) is the number one reason for cat abandonment, which is peeing outside the litter box. 

[00:02:28] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. I think this is going to be such a great episode for giving people (not only) information about why their cat is scratching, (but) tools for channeling that scratching behavior, and giving them options to avoid that declawing that will eventually lead to peeing outside of the litter box. And Dr. (Lauren) Harris and I talked about peeing outside of the litter box on another episode, so if people are having problems with that, there’s a great episode (015 Inappropriate Elimination) to listen to. But let’s dive right into this cat scratching behavior. Tell me a little bit about your cats.

[00:03:02] Dr. Stair: So I am a legitimate, crazy cat lady. I have six cats of my own. I have 3 that live in the clinic with me (clinic cats), but I always typically have at least 1-2 litters that I’m fostering that I take from the animal shelter, give them vaccines, deworm, spay/neuter them, and then get them ready for adoption. I want to show people that you don’t have to struggle every day trying to protect your furniture and belongings (I certainly don’t), and you don’t have to consider putting your family member through a painful procedure to ensure that. On the other hand, keeping the cats off your counters is another story- and I have not been able to figure that one out. 

[00:03:42] Dr. Lancellotti: Cats certainly like to climb. I remember growing up with cats in our household. They were always on the counters and up on top of the rafters and around the ceilings. They just liked to be as high as they possibly could. 

[00:03:55] Dr. Stair: Yeah. Dirty dish counters- my current pet peeve. 

Why do cats scratch?

[00:03:59] Dr. Lancellotti: Let’s talk about this scratching behavior. I know a lot of pet owners can be really frustrated by the scratching things around the home. Why do cats do this? What is the reason for this behavior? 

[00:04:11] Dr. Stair: So we need to talk about species specific behaviors. Clawing and scratching is a species specific behavior for cats, so even declawed cats that don’t have claws are going to scratch just because they have that instinctual drive to do it. If they can’t do them, it will cause them significant stress so they will almost always find a way to do this behavior, even if it wasn’t what evolution initially intended. So in dogs, it’s chewing. Dogs chewing up shoes is not exactly what they evolve to do, but they will take that behavior out on inappropriate items. When we did food animal rotations, we talked a little about chicken species specific behaviors. Chickens like to peck and scratch in the dirt. They need an environment big enough for them to be able to do that, or they’re going to do those behaviors inappropriately on each other. Chickens will peck each other bloody, even if they can’t get this behavior out. So, with cats scratching, they are going to do it whether they have claws or not. It’s just an instinctual drive. One thing I like to think about that’s sort of interesting is what human species specific behaviors are- what behaviors we have evolved to do and what we need to do to be happy in our own lives. 

[00:05:24] Dr. Lancellotti: So for my husband- his species specific behavior is making pizza, for sure.

[00:05:29] Dr. Stair: That’s a lucky one.

What happens when a cat is declawed?

[00:05:31] Dr. Lancellotti: So these species specific behaviors (particularly in cats, when they’re scratching) are going to cause damage to the furniture, as well as damage to the relationship with the pet owner. I know that a lot of times declawing is something that people may seek out as a solution to the problem. Why don’t you talk a little bit about declawing and what’s the current evidence and recommendations regarding this procedure? 

[00:06:00] Dr. Stair: This varies vet by vet and every vet has their own opinion. Basically, declining a cat involved surgically amputating the last bone in every one of their little fingers- the last bone that the nail and claw is attached to. I always tell people, “Look at your hand and imagine cutting through the last knuckle on every finger- this is what declawing does. Now think about doing that on your toes. How would you walk differently if all of your toes were shorter? Would your stride be altered if you didn’t have your big toe to push off of? The answer is ‘yes.’ And if you watch a declawed cat, they do walk differently. Changing the biomechanics of the cat and causing them to move differently will cause earlier and even more severe onset of arthritis, just from abnormal wear of the joints. Even some bones are becoming weight-bearing that aren’t necessarily supposed to be. Cats also suffer severe pain from contracted tendons after being declawed. What do tendons do when you cut them? They contract. They scar down. So when they cut off the last bone in the foot (the third phalange), the tendon contracts and it pulls it into a curl. So I tell people, “Hold your hand out flat, curl your fingers inward so that you’re making ‘the claw.’ Now, how would it feel if your hands are stuck like that? How would you walk differently if your toes were stuck like that?

[00:07:21] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. That seems like it would be really uncomfortable, both in the hands and the feet, and cats are walking on all four of those.

[00:07:29] Dr. Stair: Right. The third phalange is actually weightbearing in cats. It’s shaped sort of like a bowl, and the second toe bone sits in the bowl. So when you remove that third bowl-shaped bone, the second phalange now becomes the weight-bearing bone. It’s supposed to be in a cushioned bowl, absorbing the weight. Now, you just have the second phalange, itself, hitting the ground and bearing the weight. 

[00:07:54] Dr. Lancellotti: When you’re saying that when that third phalange (bowl portion that supports the second phalange) is gone, they’re walking on a surface that’s no longer supported the way that it was. So not only is this animal in pain from the (significantly painful) procedure, but every single step they take for the rest of their life is going to be painful. 

Declawing leads to litter box problems

cats outside of a litter box

[00:08:24] Dr. Stair: But when it comes down to what really causes people to abandon their cat, it is the behavioral problems that develop after declawing. Cats who will never use a litter box again- making them pee on the floor, inappropriate elimination, etc. They may use a potty pad. They may use your carpets or your dirty laundry on the floor, but what they will not do is something that causes them bladder pain, arthritis pain, and (a lot of the time it’s) foot pain from being declawed. Cats naturally want to eliminate in substrate (litter or dirt if they’re outside), where they can dig and bury their eliminations. They don’t want to pee on the floor, but they will if they are in pain. 

[00:09:05] Dr. Lancellotti: Because they’re associating that litter box with the pain that they experience when they dig. That’s not something that they’re going to want to do, so they’ll find other ways to eliminate. And oftentimes, it creates more of a problem than the scratching behavior on the furniture.

[00:09:21] Dr. Stair: Yeah. When you do a stakeholder analysis for declawing, I don’t think it’s in the owners’ or the cat’s best interests to do it. You’re going to make an even worse problem than you had before. For me, it’s a bigger problem to have pee on the floor than scratches, which will be an even harder problem to fix in the end. So the owner’s paying this fee in hopes that they’re going to have a better behaved animal, when statistically, they’re likely to have an even worse behaved cat- and that’s when the cat ends up at the shelter.

Declawing increases the risk of biting

cat biting a hand

[00:09:51] Dr. Lancellotti: What other behavioral issues do you wind up seeing when the animal is declawed? 

[00:09:57] Dr. Stair: The other big behavioral issue we see is biting. It’s not to say that cats with claws don’t bite (they definitely do), but a declawed cat is statistically more likely to bite hard enough to cause injuries. One theory is that they don’t have their first defense (claws), so they escalate immediately, going straight to biting. Whereas, if they had their claws, they might start with scratching or something less injurious than biting. The other theory is, again, pain. The cat isn’t sure why it’s in pain, so if you touch a painful spot, they might associate you with that pain. Or, if you’re painful a lot in your life, you might just have a shorter fuse.

[00:10:34] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah. If I’ve had a long day of procedures, if I’ve held my body in the wrong way, and my back is bothering me when I get home, my fuse is much shorter. These animals that have gone through this declawing procedure are painful, so I’m not surprised that they’re more likely to bite than a normal cat would be. 

[00:10:52] Dr. Stair: Yeah. It’s a sad phenomenon. A lot of times, older people with delicate skin (and sometimes even immunocompromised people) get their cats declawed just to protect themselves. But what’s sad about it is that cat bites are so much worse than cat scratches. You won’t go to the hospital for a cat scratch, but you absolutely will for a cat bite and you will be on antibiotics. And if you’re immunocompromised, then the bacteria in a cat’s mouth is so much worse for infection.

[00:11:20] Dr. Lancellotti: Absolutely. Those teeth in their mouth are designed for tearing through flesh, so when a cat bites, they are going to sink those teeth in very deeply. There is so much bacteria inside of a cat’s mouth- nasty bacteria that will cause really bad infections. I’ve seen some really horrible cat bite infections in some of my colleagues who were dealing with cats that weren’t quite happy to be at the vet. For those people who think they’re doing the right thing by getting an animal declawed (so that they don’t run the risk of getting hurt), they wind up in a much riskier situation if they get bit.

Nail caps can decrease destruction from scratching

cat wearing soft paws nail caps

Dr. Lancellotti: What are some of the alternatives to declawing that pet owners can use to provide the cat the opportunity to perform these normal species specific behaviors, while still saving their furniture and keeping themselves sane? 

[00:12:17] Dr. Stair: This is the easiest part for me. The simplest and safest way is to put nail caps on them. Basically, these are little rubber nail-shaped caps that you superglue onto your cat’s nail. And that just renders them ineffective as far as scratching. It’s just a nice little blunt surface. I keep them on my cat, who likes to sit on my shoulder and dig her back claws into my chest. And I have the scars to prove it. The caps grow out with the nail and fall off, so I would say about every 2 months is when we have them come back in to get the caps replaced. The only time this doesn’t really work is if the cat is picky and they chew the nails off and the caps don’t stay on. Then, your best option is just to keep the nails trimmed short, or even not adopt a cat (at all) if it posted that big of a health risk to you. 

[00:13:05] Dr. Lancellotti: I have a question about these nail caps. Is that something that has to be put on by a family veterinarian, or is that something that the pet owners might be able to do themselves?

[00:13:15] Dr. Stair: You can definitely do it at home. It’s super easy. We offer it as a service in our clinic just for people’s convenience, but also for the older people with the skin that just gets damaged so easily. There’s a ton of different kits on Amazon. I always suggest wearing gloves with it because I get that super glue all over my fingers. But if you get super glue on your fingers, it’s not the worst thing you can do. 

How should pet owners apply nail caps?

[00:13:40] Dr. Lancellotti: Since you’ve put plenty of these caps on your own pet, as well as your pets that come into the clinic, do you have any tips or tricks for pet owners who want to put these onto their cats’ claws (other than wearing the gloves to not get the super glue on their hands)?

[00:13:55] Dr. Stair: Have a helper. You can’t do it by yourself, no matter how good your cat is. Believe me! You’ll get superglue everywhere. Typically, I have my husband or one of my technicians just hold the cat. We go through and trim all the nails, which is an important part. Don’t forget to trim the nails because those will keep growing too. Then, you just put a little drop of super glue in the cap, fit it over the nail, squeeze it and hold it there for a couple seconds just while the glue dries. It’s that easy. It takes a little bit to get the hang of it if you’ve never done it. Sometimes, the caps will pop off if you don’t hold them for a little bit. If that happens, just put more glue in and stick them back on. 

[00:14:31] Dr. Lancellotti: Perfect. As a Fear Free certified veterinarian, I’m a big fan of creating positive associations and making things like this enjoyable for the pet. Pairing this when an animal is hungry, and using a really high value food reward, would be helpful in creating that positive association with the routine, especially if it needs to be done every 2 months or so. Then, if the cat is super anxious about it, it might not be a bad idea to talk to your veterinarian about some type of anti-anxiety medication which I’ve talked about in a previous episode on pre-visit medications. That would be a great tool to make the experience more pleasant, not only for your cat, but also for you when putting these nail caps on. 

[00:15:15] Dr. Stair: And even just a little bit of squirt cheese on the nose will make it a lot better for them too. 

How can I stop a cat from scratching?

cat scratching post

[00:15:20] Dr. Lancellotti: I love it. That’s great. What other things can people do to prevent destruction of their furniture at home? 

[00:15:28] Dr. Stair: Most people don’t use a nail caps since they are a little bit labor-intensive. The easiest way to teach your cat not to scratch your furniture is to provide a bunch of different scratching posts. I tell people to get one vertical scratching post and one horizontal scratching post and put them right next to where the cat scratches. Then, use double-stick tape where the cat scratches. It is that simple to train your cat. They do not like the sticky tape and they will not scratch it. 

[00:15:57] Dr. Lancellotti: I really like the sticky tape. I think that’s a really great idea. I never would have thought of that as something that the cat doesn’t like. 

[00:16:07] Dr. Stair: Sticky tape is how you train a cat. That’s it. There’s a bunch of different options on Amazon, again. There’s just the regular double-stick tape. There’s sheets they make for couches that you can slap up there. But the bottom line is that a cat will not scratch the double stick tape. Your cat will go to scratch where it usually scratches, hit the tape, and be like, “Ugh, this is disgusting. I’m going to go right onto the scratching post. Done. It’s that easy. 

[00:16:32] Dr. Lancellotti: That’s great. So, the sticky tape doesn’t have to be a permanent solution. It just has to be up there long enough to retrain the cat that, “Hey, there’s a better option for you right next to where you’ve been scratching.”

[00:16:42] Dr. Stair: Yep. 

More resources for cat scratching

[00:16:43] Dr. Lancellotti: What are some of the big takeaway points that you would like pet owners to remember as far as why their cats are scratching? 

[00:16:51] Dr. Stair: Claws and scratching are just in the inherent nature of everything that makes a cat a cat. Honestly, it’s why we love them- making biscuits, hunting flies, climbing things they shouldn’t, etc. I always tell people, “You should see your house as your cat’s habitat- just like in a zoo- rather than your cat as a guest in your house. If pet owners were more aware of what drives their pet and what needs they have for the pet to be content, I think we would not see as many behavior issues as we do. 

[00:17:21] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, I absolutely agree. They are part of our family. We need to make them feel as comfortable in our home as we are. A lot of the behavior problems that we see are just because an animal is trying to perform its natural species specific behaviors. I think there’s a lot of really good information that you shared with our listeners, today, about how to make their home a welcoming place for their cat and as relaxing and enjoyable as possible for their animal. 

[00:17:49] Dr. Stair: Exactly. 

[00:17:51] Dr. Lancellotti: Are there any other resources that you would like to mention to the listeners for more information about cat scratching and declawing?

[00:18:02] Dr. Stair: The Paw Project has a lot of good information on there. It’s a veterinarian trying to increase awareness about declawing cats. She started off with big cats (tigers and lions from zoos or in the entertainment business- they would be declawed and have even bigger issues than our tiny little house cats would have with the procedure. Also, I really love Jackson Galaxy’s educational videos on YouTube. He is great about how to make your house more copacetic to having a cat. He has a couple of videos on how to (basically) ‘cat-ify’ your house. Studies have shown that even just moving furniture to a better place for the cat can lower cortisol levels. And that’s a hormone in the blood that we can use to measure stress levels. 

[00:18:54] Dr. Lancellotti: The Indoor Cat Initiative has some really good ways for decreasing stress in your cat, as well. Many family veterinarians can help to provide you with solutions if your cat is scratching. If you want a link to find a behaviorist near you, I’ll have that posted on the website, if you’d like to consult with a specialist regarding your cat’s behavior. You can view the references for today’s show in the show notes on the website. If you have a cat that has had to be retrained, had to relearn their scratching behavior, or you have a favorite scratching post- something that you’re really proud of for making your cat comfortable in your household and giving them something they really enjoy- I would encourage you to join the Facebook group and show us pictures of your cat’s favorite scratching posts. Help provide other pet owners with ideas for getting their cat to scratch where they want them to instead of ruining their furniture. 

Scratching the Itch

[00:20:00] Dr. Lancellotti: Dr. Stair, I like to end each episode with a segment called Scratching The Itch. This is a little bit different kind of scratch. This segment highlights something; either a human interest story, a product, or website that either provides relief or just makes you feel good. Hence, scratching the itch. Do you have a ‘scratching the itch’ for our listeners, today?

[00:20:21] Dr. Stair: Like I said earlier- I am a crazy cat lady and I always have kittens in my clinic for adoption. I’m a very huge proponent of adopting from shelters and helping the burden in shelters. That being said, my number one tip for new pet owners asking me about adopting a kitten- adopt two! They do so much better together. I think it’s a common misconception that people think cats are solitary animals, but cats are not independent dwellers like many people would think. Their natural social structure is to live in groups. 

[00:20:57] Dr. Lancellotti: Yeah, absolutely. That’s great. Having two kittens instead of one will help provide relief for the other cat and make you feel good as a pet owner. I love that. Dr. Stair, thank you so much for coming on and talking to us today about all of the different ways that pet owners can help to channel that scratching behavior so that the furniture doesn’t get ruined and so that their pet can live a happy, healthy life. 

[00:21:42] Dr. Stair: And keep cats out of the shelter!

[00:21:44] Dr. Lancellotti: I love it. That’s great. Thank you very much. And for all of you listening, I look forward to your next visit with Your Vet Wants You To Know.

Resources and References:

https://www.softpaws.com/

https://pawproject.org/

https://www.jacksongalaxy.com/blog/

https://indoorpet.osu.edu/cats

DePorter, Theresa L., and Ashley L. Elzerman. “Common Feline Problem Behaviors: Destructive Scratching.” JOURNAL OF FELINE MEDICINE AND SURGERY, vol. 21, no. 3, Mar. 2019, pp. 235–43.

Gerard, Amanda F., et al. “Telephone Survey to Investigate Relationships between Onychectomy or Onychectomy Technique and House Soiling in Cats.” JAVMA-JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN VETERINARY MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, vol. 249, no. 6, Sept. 2016, pp. 638–43.

Martell-Moran, Nicole K., et al. “Pain and Adverse Behavior in Declawed Cats.” JOURNAL OF FELINE MEDICINE AND SURGERY, vol. 20, no. 4, Apr. 2018, pp. 280–88.

Mills, Katelyn E., et al. “A Review of Medically Unnecessary Surgeries in Dogs and Cats.” JAVMA-JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN VETERINARY MEDICAL ASSOCIATION, vol. 248, no. 2, Jan. 2016, pp. 162–71.

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