Cats don't scratch carpets out of spite or an instinct to destroy—scratching is a natural behavior for cats. Cats scratch things to care for their claws, mark surfaces, invite play, or attract attention, Most prefer to scratch surfaces that they can sink their claws into, like carpet, drapery, and upholstery—much to the dismay of cat owners. It's important to stop your cat from scratching your carpet and other beloved possessions and direct the scratching to a better target so you can preserve your household furnishings (and your relationship with your cat).
Why Cats Scratch Carpet, Upholstery, and Other Surfaces
Cats scratch by digging their front claws into a horizontal or vertical surface, then pulling their feet down or back. While this often damages the item being scratched, it provides a benefit to the cat. Scratching is an important part of a cat's health and wellbeing. There are a few reasons why cats scratch, and it all comes down to instinct.
Health and Grooming
The action of scratching, referred to as stropping, loosens and removes the outer layers of the claw to reveal a sharp new surface underneath. You may find these nail layers around your home, especially in areas where your cat likes to scratch. 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 top shape for hunting. Some cats will scratch by lying down and pulling their body weight along the floor. The surfaces they choose to scratch are usually fixed and nonyielding to provide resistance against the muscles they use to scratch.
Scratching is also used as a form of communication or marking behavior. The scent and sweat glands on the feet mix together and produce a unique smell. When claws are scraped down a surface, it leaves behind marks, scents, and claw husks. Other cats can see and smell this like a message.
Outdoor cats may leave evidence of scratching on trees, fence posts, sheds, and wooden gates. It's no coincidence that 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.
Indoor cats tend to find similar surfaces indoors to serve their instinct to scratch, often targeting softwoods, carpets, and fabric-covered furnishings.
In some cases, scratching is a precursor to play, either with another cat in the home or with human companions. It may also be a bid for attention. If a cat is routinely shooed or chased away when it scratches furniture or carpeting, it may come to associate scratching with receiving attention.
How to Stop a Cat From Scratching the Carpet
Your first option for preventing damage from scratching is to direct your cat's behavior to an acceptable target. Kitty furniture such as scratching posts is designed for that exact purpose.
What do you do if your cat refuses to use the scratching post or sometimes chooses to ignore it in favor of your carpeting? The best solution is to provide scratching surfaces that are more desirable to your cat than your furnishings.
Add a horizontal scratching pad. Cats have their own individual scratching patterns and preferences. Those that scratch carpeting may be more inclined to scratch horizontally than use a vertical scratching post. Fortunately, there are scratching pads made for horizontal scratching; some are wedge-shaped inclines and others are flattened out. Experiment to find one that your cat likes.
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 its need to sharpen its claws on your carpet. Many scratching posts are covered with carpet, but you should 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, provide at least one of each: a tall vertical scratching post, a flat scratching mat, and an inclined scratcher. Make sure scratching posts are heavy and sturdy so they remain fixed in place while your cat scratches them.
Cover up the spot where your cat scratches. If possible, move a piece of furniture (or a scratching post) to your cat's favorite carpet spot. A sisal scratching post may be a good choice here. For scratching that takes place in front of an entryway, cover the area with a thin mat. Two-sided tape can act as a deterrent and eventually train your cat to avoid the area, especially on vertical surfaces.
Infuse the area with scent. Use a feline pheromone plug-in or a spray like Feliway in the area where your cat has been scratching. Although these types of products aren't marketed specifically for this purpose, cat behaviorists have found that the "friendly pheromones" in these products can fool cats into believing the area has already been "marked" by another cat, often discouraging scratching behavior.
Consider your cat's anxiety level. A cat may resort to more frequent scratching if it's emotionally stressed, such as when it feels threatened by environmental changes or a new pet (or a new child) has recently become a part of the household. Paying more attention to your cat, including playing with it more often, may offer the reassurance it needs to give up its carpet-scratching habits.
Reduce the Damage Done by Cat Claws
While you're working on methods to stop your cat's carpet scratching, you'll want to minimize the damage to your home in the meantime. Trim your cat's claws regularly, using a sharp claw-trimming tool. This will help keep the damage to a minimum.
You may also wish to try a product like nail caps. These should only be applied to cats that allow you to handle and manipulate their paws. If you've never used nail caps before, many veterinarians and most large pet supply stores offer installation and training for a small fee. Your cat probably won't mind them, and they'll prevent the shredding-type of damage your cat sometimes inflicts on your rugs.
Edited by Jenna Stregowski, RVT
Cat Behavior Problems - Scratching Behavior. VCA Hospitals.
Feline Behavior Problems: Destructive Behavior. Cornell Feline Health Center