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Inappropriate Scratching of Cats

  • January 8, 2019 12:09 PM EST

    Scratching of inanimate objects is normal behavior for cats. This type of behavior helps sharpen and remove the nail sheaths, allow for visual and olfactory marking and stretching of the front legs and body. The authors refer to scratching of inanimate objects not designed or designated for scratching as inappropriate scratching. Inappropriate scratching is a common complaint of cat owners with reports indicating between 15% and 52% of cats demonstrate this behavior. Inappropriate scratching can lead to the loss of the human-cat bond which can lead to the relinquishment of the cat. 

    This study’s objective was to gather early data on features and preventative measures of feline inappropriate scratching. This preliminary data as a pilot study would be used to design future randomized control studies. 

    A questionnaire was distributed to 140 clients of a small animal practice who had cats. The response rate to the questionnaire was 82.9%. Information was gathered about the type of objects that were inappropriately scratched (sofa, chair table, carpet; wall or doorway; curtains, drapes and other hanging material; other) and material (cardboard, wood, carpet, leather, fabric, other) plus how the surface scratched was angled compared to the floor (vertical or horizontal). The clients were asked about the frequency of scratching inappropriate items and also about the approximate cost of the damage. In addition, they were asked to select techniques they used to stop the inappropriate scratching and who offered advice about the techniques. 

    The results from the questionnaire showed that 83.9% (n=112) of the cats had reports of inappropriate scratching. The majority of cats were reported to scratch inappropriate items at least once a day, most scratched at least one item (33.7%) or two (43.5%) different types of items while 22.8% of cats scratched three or more different types of items. Most (81.5%) scratched chairs, sofas, tables or other furniture, including beds. Most of the cats scratched carpet as the inappropriate item while scratching doorways, walls, drapes, curtains, other hanging textiles and other times was much less common. 

    The frequency of inappropriate scratching was significantly influenced by type, material and angle to the ground. Cats preferred furniture and carpet, fabric and carpet, and vertical surfaces to the ground most often for inappropriate scratching. The majority of owners estimated the amount of damage caused by inappropriate scratching as < $100 (USD). 

    Most cats (76.1%) had a designated scratching item, the frequency of scratching a designated item was influenced by type, with cats using scratching posts and other items more often than scratching pads, also not influenced by material, angle, length or location of the designated item. The questionnaire reported that cats preferred furniture, mostly covered with fabric and occasionally with leather, and carpet for scratching. 

    Those clients who attempted to teach their cats to scratch designated items by placing the cat near the item reported the cats scratched the designated item less than cats of clients who did not use this technique. Scratching frequency for designated items was not influenced by any other behavior modification category. While the majority of clients yelled or sprayed water to interrupt scratching, it was noted that these actions did not affect the expression of the undesired behavior in this study. 

    The authors report on a prior study finding that those who rewarded their cat were more likely to report the cat used their preferred post once daily, these investigators did not find an effect of reward-based training on the frequency of scratching with this study. Reward-based training is effective if the cat creates an association between the behavior of scratching the designated item and the reward. The authors state it is important that clients receive correct advice on how to reward a cat effectively. Surveys of veterinarians indicate only a small percentage of veterinarians routinely inquire about or offer advice to prevent behavior problems. 

    The authors feel the results from this study should be tested in randomized, blinded trials with a goal to develop evidence-based recommendations.

    Reference: Survey of cat owners on features of, and preventative measures for feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study. J Feline Med Surg. 2018 Oct;20(10):891-899.