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Just for Kids: Cat Scratching

By: Virginia Wells

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Cats like to scratch – no doubt about it. And if you are lucky, your kitty will enjoy the scratching post you bought instead of the draperies or your mother's favorite chair. Beneath those soft furry paws lie needle sharp claws that can destroy a couch or draw blood in a fraction of a second.

You probably think that your kitty scratches to keep his claws razor-sharp. But there's more to it than that.

All About Claws

Cats' claws are shaped like sickles or crescents and they have very sharp tips. You may already know this if you've been playing with your new pet. Claws are designed to allow the cat to grip and hold onto his prey. The claws grow continuously, and they are kept from growing too long through use. Cats retract their claws into a skin pouch while walking to avoid wearing them down.

Cats' claws grow from within, like an onion, and the outer worn layers are eventually shed. By scratching, your cat loosens the outer layer from the cuticle. The outer layer falls off and remains behind at the scratching post (or the scene of the crime). If you look closely, you'll see them there.

Marking Territory

Cats also scratch when they want to mark their territory. In the wild, cats scratch around their environment to signal their presence to other cats and to claim the area. The marking has two forms: visual (sight) and olfactory (smell). The visual mark is in the form of clawing marks and is so obvious that even we humans can recognize it.

The olfactory mark isn't as easy to spot. As your cat scratches, scent glands on the underside of the paws secrete substances called pheromones. These have a smell recognizable to members of the same species. Pheromones are like fingerprints in humans.

Pheromones affect a number of behaviors:

  • Attracting a mate and giving information about reproductive status
  • Marking boundaries and territories
  • Promoting a sense of familiarity

    Scratching is Good for Cats

    Scratching provides your cat with a form of physical therapy for the muscles and tendons of his paws. While he is scratching, his claws are getting practice extending and retracting. The front legs and shoulders are getting some stretching and strengthening exercise, too.

    Teaching Your Kitty

    Knowing why your kitty likes to scratch your expensive couch might make it easier to understand. However, you don't have to live with that behavior. By gentle and consistent correction and by providing alternative scratching areas, you can persuade your cat to scratch where you want him to.

    The Scratching Post

    To persuade your cat to use a scratching post, you have to understand some basics:

  • A scratching post should be tall enough for your cat to stretch up on his back feet to his full height without being able to reach the top. This is probably about 3 feet high.

  • The scratching post should be steady. No self-respecting cat will use a post that rocks or falls over.

  • Use the right material. Your cat wants to leave a visible mark. Fabric that doesn't tear or fray will be of no use. Burlap is a favorite with many cats.

  • Keep the post in a good place. Place it in obvious areas at first, preferably near scratching sites that your cat has selected for himself. Gradually you can move it to another place that you like.

  • Keep one extra scratching post in the household. If you have two cats, keep three posts. Once the problem is under control, those that are not being used can be removed.

    Deterrents

    Deterrents are things that discourage your cat from scratching where he isn't supposed to scratch. Several deterrents are available and may help:
  • Covering a piece of furniture with heavy plastic may alter the texture so your cat doesn't enjoy scratching there.

  • You can spray moth repellent that contain naphthol. You'll have to spray periodically because the odor fades.

  • A spray called Feliway might work. This spray contains a pheromone and might deter your cat from scratching.

  • Make sure if you have more than one cat that there isn't any squabbling. They might scratch to mark their territory.

    Nail Covers

    "Soft Paws"™ (or Soft Claws) are plastic nail caps that can be super-glued to a cat's claws following a preliminary nail trim. The caps have to be replaced every month, or you can replace each one as it falls off. They usually keep the furniture from being damaged.

    Nail Trims

    Keep your cat's nails well trimmed. You or your parents can learn how to do this yourselves. You must use a sharp pair of nail trimmers made specifically for cats (don't use human trimmers). Ask your veterinarian to teach you how and to recommend some good nail clippers.

    Declawing

    Many people consider declawing surgery. Many veterinarians believe declawing is a painful and unnecessary surgery and refuse to do it for humane reasons. Instead, they advocate training your cat to use a scratching post. However, some veterinarians still believe declawing is a safe procedure.

    This surgery removes the claw, the nail bed and often part or all of the last finger. If an animal is declawed, you have to take care that he doesn't ever get outside because he will not be able to protect himself. He won't be able to climb as well, either.

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