August 2019

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

Cats are loved for their companionship, playfulness, and fun they provide to a home. However, when people and cats live together, some natural feline behaviors can lead to destruction of property and injury to guardians. A new couch being shredded, or a child being scratched by a playful kitten, just to name a few examples.

First, it is important to understand the physiology of the paw and claws. The paws are the basic framework of the anatomy of cats' legs. In their entirety, including the toes, they support the muscles, tendons, and entire body, and they help the cat balance. The footpads contain scent glands, and the claws contain blood vessels and nerves. Claws have layers similar to the layers of an onion. The claw itself is an extension of the cat's skin. The outer layer of the claw tissue is continually growing and must be removed to accommodate new growth. When a cat digs into a scratching surface, the outer layers of the old nail become loose and are shed.

Cats' claws are used in a variety of ways, and scratching is a normal and natural activity. Cats scratch for many reasons:

  • Stretching and exercise: Perhaps most important for a cat, scratching is a satisfying way for them to stretch and tone their back and shoulder muscles-it feels good!
  • Grooming: Cats need their claws to "scratch that itch!"
  • Play and hunting: Claws are an important tool in catching prey or toys.
  • Climbing: Cats love to perch in high places and climb, be it up a tree or to the top of a cat condo.
  • Kneading: When a cat rhythmically moves her paws on people, clothing, or bedding, she is "kneading". This is generally a sign of contentment.
  • Marking territory: Scratching leaves visual and scent cues to other cats that this location has already been claimed by another feline.
  • Defense: Cats use their claws to protect themselves. They may use their claws with humans when frightened or irritated.
  • Stress relief: Cats often resort to scratching after a stressful event, such as a negative interaction with another animal or person. This behavior is often wrongfully interpreted as the cat being "spiteful" or "getting back at the owner."

These behaviors are natural and healthy for cats, but that doesn't mean there aren't effective ways of keeping your furniture intact, as well as giving your cat some fun options.

  • Scratching posts can act as both a perch and resting spot, as well as a scratching surface.
  • Soft tips, such as "Soft Paws," can be applied to the end of nails to prevent scratching.
  • Keep nails trimmed regularly and be sure to reward your kitty with tasty treats to encourage cooperation.
  • The area you are trying to prevent being scratched can be temporarily covered with foil or double-sided tape to become less appealing while your cat learns to use a scratching post.

Never declaw your cat to solve a problem around scratching. This can cause other issues, including pain, aggression and they may even refuse to use the litterbox.

This document created by the San Francisco SPCA with a grant from Maddie's Fund®.