Why Do Cats Scratch?

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If you're a cat lover, you may have a scratching post in every room or notice that your cat likes to spend much of their time scratching. Cats have highly adapted, sharp, and curved claws to make it easier to attack and grab prey while hunting and defend themselves while fighting.1 The claws are retractable, making them quiet when walking or running. However, your domestic cat uses their claws for things other than hunting, such as climbing and scratching. But why do cats scratch? 

This article will discuss cats scratching objects like posts, furniture, carpet, and even humans. If you're worried about your itchy cat scratching or excessively grooming themselves, consult your vet as soon as possible for diagnosis and treatment. So, why do cats scratch furniture and other objects?

Scratching is a normal cat behavior passed down from their ancestors. Scratching is an instinctual behavior, so they don't simply like to scratch; they need to scratch. There are several reasons cats scratch, ranging from stress to marking objects with their scent and expressing emotions. 

Reasons Why Cats Scratch

Reasons why cats scratch

Cats scratch with their front claws; some prefer to scratch in a downward motion, while others like a horizontal or vertical scratching surface.2 Scratching removes the outer layer of the claw, which is why your cat's claws are always sharper after they use a scratching post. But why do cats scratch furniture or posts? Here are a few reasons why cats scratch: 

To Keep Their Nails In Top Condition

If you're wondering, "Why do cats need to scratch," the most common reason is grooming. Scratching promotes nail health because, during scratching, the outer nail husk is shed, revealing a healthier, sharper claw.2 Pet parents might find these husks around their home, especially on the floors or carpet near scratching posts. However, they're nothing to worry about because they're supposed to be shed; your cat didn't lose a nail from scratching. 

To Mark Territory With Their Scent

There are several ways cats mark their scent; they can spray, rub up against, or scratch nearby objects. Sebaceous glands secrete sebum, an oily substance, onto the skin. This substance is found on the face, paws, neck, tail, and other parts of the cat's body.3 These glands are how the cat can leave their scent on objects since cats have scent glands on their paw pads. 

Cats use scent to communicate with other cats, animals, and even humans. Cats enjoy their own scent and find it reassuring, so they may use it to make an environment feel more familiar. In addition, they may use scratching to mark their scent near doorways or their litter box to mark their territory. 

To Stretch And Exercise

Scratching is mentally and physically stimulating; it gives your cat a fun activity that can benefit their health. Many animals like stretching their back, legs, and paws. Scratching is just one way cats can stretch, and it also tones their back and shoulder muscles. 

To Express Emotions

Scratching is a stress reliever for cats. Stress, excitement, and boredom can make your cat want to scratch. Unfortunately, your cat can't tell you how they're feeling. However, stressed cats may scratch excessively or groom themselves more often. Since a stressed cat may express their emotions in several ways, you should know the other signs to look for, including body language and other behaviors like grooming. 

What Do Cats Like To Scratch?

Cats don't like to scratch; they need to scratch, as it's part of their instincts. Cats in the wild may scratch trees to mark their territory, while indoor cats may scratch anything from posts to door frames and furniture. But why do cats scratch posts? Cats like to scratch anything they can get their nails in, so you may find your feline friend scratching furniture, drapes, carpet, and other softer materials.1

It's important to remember that cats don't scratch to spite their pet parents; this behavior is instinctual, so they should have designated scratching spots, mats, and posts to help them satisfy their need to scratch.

Indoor cats typically scratch areas they think are important for marking their territory. Therefore, you might find scratches near the front or back doors and in rooms where your cat spends most of their time. Luckily, you can prevent destructive scratching by giving them scratching posts and cat trees in multiple rooms to prevent them from scratching your furniture and walls.

Why Do Cats Scratch People?

If your cat has ever scratched you, you might wonder why, especially if your cat had no reason to scratch you and you weren't bothering them. Cats sometimes scratch people for several reasons, including the following:

  • Play: Cats can get rough during play, especially when young or bored. Since cats play similarly to how they hunt, cats might scratch you during play like they would with other cats. If your cat scratches you a lot, it's likely because they're not getting the physical and mental stimulation they need. Remember, cats are natural hunters and need physical activity every day. Therefore, you should exercise your cat regularly but never encourage rough behavior. For example, if your cat swats at you, you should walk away. In addition, if they try to play with you by scratching you, you can give them a toy instead. 
  • Overstimulation: If you've ever played with your cat and they started playing rough, it's likely because they were overstimulated. Cats can easily become overstimulated or even aggressive during play. If your cat begins scratching during play, you should calm them down by gently petting them or letting them spend time alone. 
  • Defensive behavior: Cats can scratch humans if they feel threatened. This can happen whether you're engaging your cat in play or they meet a stranger for the first time. Stress can cause defensive behavior that results in scratching or swatting. In addition, cats can scratch you when they're in pain, and you try to touch them, so if your cat is repeatedly scratching you, they should be taken to the vet for examination to ensure they're not experiencing any pain.

In addition, if your cat is scratching you aggressively, it may be due to an underlying behavior issue like anxiety, fear, and stress. In these cases, working with a vet behaviorist may help you treat aggressive behaviors to help improve the quality of your pet’s life.

How To Stop Cats From Destructive Scratching

Punishing your cat is not an effective way to stop destructive scratching

Now that you have the answer to your question, "Why do cats scratch," let's discuss how to stop your cat from destructive scratching. Destructive scratching is any scratching behavior that can damage your home or personal belongings. Remember, scratching is a normal behavior in cats, and your cat doesn't understand why they shouldn't scratch your drapes. Therefore, it's up to you to find ways to prevent destructive scratching. Here are a few ideas to help: 

Give Your Cat Something To Scratch

If you want to learn how to stop cats from scratching the furniture, you'll need to give them something else to scratch. Scolding or punishing your cat is not an effective way to change their behavior as it can confuse and scare them, making them more prone to anxious behaviors like destructive scratching. Therefore, you must provide your cat with an outlet. Some cats like to scratch vertically, while others like to scratch horizontally. 

In addition, some cats prefer to scratch different materials, so you may have to experiment with different scratching posts, textures, and materials. Cats that like to scratch vertically will enjoy scratching posts that are tall and lined with rope or twine with a rough texture that allows them to grip. Meanwhile, cats that like to scratch horizontally will enjoy a scratching pad.4 Remember, some cats like scratching wood while others prefer corrugated cardboard, so you may be able to create your own scratching post at home.

You should keep scratching posts or pads in areas where your cat is most likely to engage in destructive scratching. In addition, you can get them used to their new scratching posts by showing them how to use them or adding catnip or feline pheromones to them to entice cats to start using them. 

Make Scratching Areas Less Desirable

If your cat has a habit of scratching your door frames, walls, or drapes, you can make those areas less appealing to them. You can easily deter cats from scratching furniture with coverings or even sheets. You can also spray citrus scents on drapes and furniture to prevent your cat from going near them since cats have an aversion to the strong scent. 

Of course, these are temporary solutions, so while your cat is learning how to use their new scratching posts or pads, you can deter undesirable behaviors, but you may not be able to prevent them completely. 

Routine Nail Care For Cats

Reasons to regularly trim your cat’s nails

One reason cats scratch is to groom themselves and remove the outer layer of the nail. While scratching does not dull the nail, it's an important part of their regular grooming routine. Trimming your cat's nails regularly can prevent destructive scratching because it reduces their need to groom their nails. Trimming your cat's nails regularly will prevent broken and split nails while ensuring nail health and making scratches less damaging for furniture and harmful for humans.

How often your cat needs their nails trimmed will range from every two to four weeks. However, you'll know when it's time for a trim if your cat's nails are getting snagged on things like carpet or their favorite scratching posts.

Of course, you should never declaw your cat. Declawing may prevent your cat from scratching, but it's bad for their health. When cats are declawed, the final bone on each toe is removed, which requires painful surgery and wounds on every toe.5 Declawing is banned in many states because it is harmful to cats. It can cause paw and back pain, infection, tissue necrosis, and even lameness in some cats since removing the bone affects the structure of the cat's feet.5 Additionally, declawed cats are more likely to bite as an alternative to scratching.

In addition, when declawing a cat, they can easily become stressed, especially because they no longer have the claws to protect themselves. Therefore, cats may become aggressive, depressed, or even start biting. 

Why Do Cats Scratch?: FAQs

Do cats scratch because of anxiety?

Scratching is a natural, instinctive behavior in cats. However, some cats might scratch when they're stressed and anxious. This behavior can reduce stress and help your cat self-soothe. Cats often scratch more when they're anxious, so it's important to know your cat's normal behaviors to determine whether or not they're scratching too much. 

In addition, cats may scratch themselves due to anxiety, different cat allergies, food allergies, and underlying illnesses or infections like fleas on cats and dry skin. Therefore, if your cat keeps scratching its ears or excessively grooming because they're itchy, it's essential to take them to the vet for diagnosis and treatment. 

Do cats scratch to sharpen their claws?

Scratching keeps your cat's claws healthy and sharp by removing the outer layer of the claw to reveal a sharper, healthier claw underneath. Ultimately, they're not sharpening the existing claw; they're removing the dull parts to allow the healthier, sharper parts of the claw to come in. 

What causes a cat to scratch you?

Cats can scratch humans for many reasons, including rough play, overstimulation, and aggression. In most cases, your cat isn't scratching you to hurt you; instead, they may get overwhelmed during play, or you may have entered their personal space without permission. However, some cats scratch more than others, and anxious cats can scratch when they're feeling threatened, so it's not uncommon for pet parents to get scratched by their cats every now and then. 

Close up side view of a cat scratching a mat

Final Notes

Why do cats scratch? It's an instinctive behavior passed down from their ancestors. In the wild, cats scratch to lay claim to their territory, protect themselves, and reveal sharper nails. At home, your pet cat scratches for the same reasons. However, scratching more often than usual or scratching humans and other pets could be a sign of underlying anxiety. 

If you're worried about your cat's behavior, or they appear more aggressive than usual, consult a vet to ensure they're not experiencing an underlying illness that causes stress or pain. Since anxiety can cause cats to scratch more often or become aggressive, talking to a vet can help you determine why your cat is scratching and devise the best treatment plan. Talk to a Dutch vet if your cat is experiencing behavioral problems like destructive scratching, anxiety, or aggression. We can help diagnose, treat, and manage behavioral issues in pets to improve your cat's quality of life. Try Dutch today. 

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References

  1. Bukowski, John A., and Susan Aiello. "Description and Physical Characteristics of Cats - Cat Owners." Merck Veterinary Manual, 10 Nov. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/description-and-physical-characteristics-of-cats/description-and-physical-characteristics-of-cats.

  2. "Scratching on Furniture and Carpets." International Cat Care, 30 Nov. 2020, https://icatcare.org/advice/scratching-on-furniture-and-carpets/.

  3. Moriello, Karen A. "Structure of the Skin in Cats - Cat Owners." Merck Veterinary Manual, 10 Nov. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/skin-disorders-of-cats/structure-of-the-skin-in-cats.

  4. "How to Stop Cats' Destructive Scratching." The Humane Society of the United States, https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/how-stop-cats-destructive-scratching.

  5. "Why Declawing Is Bad for Your Cat." The Humane Society of the United States, https://www.humanesociety.org/resources/why-declawing-bad-your-cat.

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