It is innate behavior for a cat to scratch its claws regularly. The target is almost always some surface with a texture that allows the cat sink its claws into it. Unfortunately, the material the cat chooses may well be the fabric of your upholstered furniture, your draperies, or your carpet. Unless you find a way to break your cat of this habit and direct the scratching to a better target, a cat can ruin household furnishings.
Rest assured, though, that your cat is not honing its claws out of spite or because it is bad. Once you understand the reasons for the behavior, you're part-way along the path to solving the problem.
Why Cats Scratch
Everyone recognizes the sight and sound: a cat scratching with its front claws by dragging them downward, either on a horizontal or vertical surface. There are many reasons a cat does this, from grooming to attention-getting:
- This action, referred to as stropping, loosens and removes the outer husk of the claw revealing a sharp new surface underneath. Claw sharpening is an act of grooming for the cat.
- Scratching also exercises the muscles of the forelimbs and spine to keep the cat in tip-top condition for hunting. Some cats will scratch by lying down and pulling their bodyweight along the floor. The surfaces chosen are usually fixed and non-yielding to provide resistance against the muscles used in scratching.
- Scratching is also used as a form of territorial communication or marking behavior. Scent and sweat glands in between the pads of the feet mix to produce a unique smell. When claws are scraped down a surface, the scent is deposited and the combination of the mark, the discarded claw husks, and the smell provides a strong visual and olfactory message to other cats.
- Scratching can serve as a precursor to play, either with another cat in the home or with human companions.
- Scratching may be a call for attention in some species. If a cat is routinely shooed or chased when it scratches furniture or carpeting, it may come to associate scratching with receiving attention.
When a cat has access to the outdoors, you may see evidence of its scratching on trees, fence posts, sheds, and wooden gates—these are all areas that are highly visible to other outdoor cats. Such scratching is a territorial behavior used to communicate with other cats and mark boundaries. A cat that is house-bound, as most cats now are, will find similar surfaces indoors to perform this instinctive scratching behavior. Indoors, it is usually softwoods and fabric-covered furnishings that serve as targets for that genetic scratching behavior.
Stopping a Cat From Scratching the Carpet
The first option for preventing damage from scratching is to direct the cat's behavior to an acceptable target—a scratching post designed for that purpose. What do you do, though, if your cat refuses to use that scratching post, or from time to time chooses to ignore it in favor of your carpeting? Here are some possible solutions:
- Add a horizontal scratching pad. Cats have their own individual scratching patterns and preferences, and those that scratch carpeting may be more inclined to horizontal scratching than to a vertical scratching post. There are scratching pads made for this purpose; some are in an inclined shape and others are flattened out.
- Add multiple scratching posts and pads, covered with different materials and different textures. It's possible that the choice of different scratching options will relieve your cat of the need to sharpen its claws on your carpet. Many scratching posts are covered with carpet, but add one or two with a different material, such as sisal, corrugated cardboard, or even plain wood. Remember that cats like varying surface angles for scratching, ranging between horizontal and vertical. So ideally, have at least one of each: a tall vertical scratching post, a flat scratching mat, and an inclined scratcher.
- Cover up the spot where your cat scratches. If possible, move a piece of furniture (or a scratching post) over the top of your cat's favorite carpet spot. A sisal scratching post may be a good choice here. For scratching habits in front of a door entry, cover the area with a thin mat.
- Spray the area with scent. Use a Comfort Zone Plug-In or spray by Feliway in the area where your cat is scratching. Although not marketed specifically for this purpose, cat behaviorists have found that the "friendly pheromones" in Feliway can fool cats into believing the area has already been "marked," thus discouraging their scratching.
- Consider your cat's anxiety level. A cat may resort to more frequent scratching if it is emotionally stressed, such as when it feels threatened by environmental changes or if a new pet (or even a new child) has recently become part of the household. Paying more attention to your cat, or playing more with it, may offer the reassurance it needs to give up its carpet-scratching habits
Minimize Damage From Your Cat's Claws
Trim your cat's claws regularly, using a sharp claw-trimming tool. This will help minimize the damage. Or, you can protect your cat's claws with Soft Claws plastic nail caps. If you've never used nail caps before, many veterinarians and most large pet supply stores will offer installation and training for a small fee. Most cats don't mind Soft Claws, and they will prevent the shredding-type of damage cats can sometimes inflict on carpeting.