Q: I have a new kitten that is so adorable. My friend gave him to me after she found him alone under her porch last summer crying. I play with him all the time and try to be a good owner and take him to the vet for vaccines and checkups. But he is scratching me and my furniture all the time with his claws. At night he scratches and pounces on my feet. He has even started to stretch up my legs and claw at my jeans. Yesterday he tried to climb me! Ouch! I don’t want to declaw him but what do I do?
A: You are not alone in your struggle. There is a growing movement in veterinary medicine and in society to stop performing onychectomy (or declawing) in cats for humane reasons. It is an elective procedure in most cases for the very issues you have just spelled out. It is our responsibility, as a profession of cat advocates, to educate you on how to better live with a cat that has its claws and still have intact furniture and no leg wounds.
Claws do have a role in cats’ lives. They, in addition to sharp teeth, provide a tool to hunt and apprehend prey. They use their claws to defend themselves against other animals, or people, during times of conflict. They need and depend on their claws so much for survival.
Scratching is normal feline behavior, a form of communication. Cats may scratch more during times of stress or change. The three reasons cats scratch inanimate objects, like furniture, are to:
- Renew their physical nails from a dull rounded old outer shell to reveal a fine pointy nail underneath.
- Mark their territory visually with scratch marks, and with scent located in glands at the base of their claws.
- To stretch their limbs.
In this case, I think there is some deliberate scratching and marking going on, as well as some accidental oops-your-legs-just-make-a-great-launching-pad. Let’s try some strategies and hope one or more will help.
Trim your cat’s nails once or twice a month. Ask your veterinarian to show you how, and then go for it. Get an assistant and some food treats to distract him as you trim. Feed and cut. Feed and cut. Some people get to the point of filing their cat’s nails to keep them less sharp. Once you trim the claws, you may even want to apply rubber covers called Soft Paws to the nails to keep them covered and better protected.
Also, don’t play too rough with him. If he thinks your fingers and toes are OK to chase or pounce on during the day, then why not at night? Always use cat toys, and not body parts, to engage your pet. A consistent message will help him learn appropriate behavior faster and keep you wound-free.
Because scratching is such an important part of a cat’s world, we have to give them something, anything, to scratch on. There are lots of options, and I recommend you embrace them. Definitely get a vertical scratcher that is taller than your cat so he can fully stretch out on it. Make sure it’s sturdy so it doesn’t fall over and scare him as he stretches.
If he prefers to scratch carpet, also provide a carpeted horizontal scratching pad. Most cats (but not all) like twine rope coverings for their scratching post. Look into cardboard and carpet and even wood.
Location. Location. Location. Cats like to scratch and stretch (like we do) when they wake up. Place a scratching post near where your cat sleeps. If that’s in several locations in the house, place multiple posts near each site. Also place one near where the cat eats, to help mark the cat’s spot.
Place a scratching post near whatever piece of furniture is a target. Often, that furniture will be near a window or a room entrance, and serves as a great place to scratch and mark the room or area as a cat’s territory, but he can just as easily signal on a scratching post.
When your cat does choose the scratching post and not the furniture, you have to reward that behavior. Treats, grooming, attention, catnip — whatever makes him happy is the best reward for a behavior desired. When you redirect him to the scratching post, the reward must come within 1 to 3 seconds to really reinforce and train him as to what is the better behavior.
Try some of these remedies to see which ones work and how he responds. Something will work for you. Please be patient and stay focused with positive rewards. With time, effort and understanding, you too will find out that you can live with a cat that still has its claws and not be scarred for life.