How can I get my cat to stop scratching the furniture?
Cats scratch furniture. They just do. And consequently, we cat owners do not always own the nicest things. Or maybe we do, but no one can tell. Our couches and love seats and ottomans and other upholstered things quickly look very different from the way they looked on the day they came off the delivery truck.
Do we care? Well, we still have the cats, even if we don’t have the sofas.
It’s important to understand why cats scratch furniture, though. For one, understanding cats is a worthy goal in itself. And second, it can help us make choices that create the behaviors we prefer in our cats.
So, why do cats scratch furniture? Just so you know, cats are not furry little interior designers who object to your taste in sectionals. Cats have a biological need to scratch and it just so happens that a nubby, vertical surface, like the arm of that brand new sofa you just ordered, makes for an almost perfect scratching post.
So, why do cats scratch?
Humans don’t have a need to drag our fingernails down textured surfaces. Dogs don’t either. In fact, none of our other house pets big or small ever scratched anything, except the cats. Why do cats need to scratch?
Cats scratch to mark territory
The primary reason cats scratch is to announce themselves to other cats and to mark territory. Cats will leave behind both visual and scent markings that state clearly to other cats, “I was here and this place is mine.”
Scent is important in the cat world. Most mammals use scent as a means of communication with each other. Scent provides information about who the scent-leaver was including their gender and their status.
There are special glands on a cat’s paws, too. Scratching is an effective way to transfer scent from a cat paw to the couch.
Wild cats would scratch furniture, too, if they could
Our house cats aren’t the only cats who scratch. Cougars will “claw rake” a tree, leaving behind vertical scratches on the trunk.
One could argue, since these are highly visible markings, that cougars claw rake trees to leave a physical sign to other cougars, and that may be partly true. But cougars are frequently witnessed sniffing the scrapes of other cougars. Presumably smelling the rakes provide information that cannot be gathered by the visual marks alone.
African lions and tigers in the wild also leave large claw marks high up on trees. Researchers assume that the big cats want to send both scent and visual messages to other animals with these large marks. We can assume that our own domesticated cats have retained this need to scratch vertical surfaces as a form of communication.
What are some other reasons cats scratch?
Some people believe there is more to a cat scratching furniture than communication. Some suggest that cats need to scratch to stretch muscles and tendons. A cat waking from a nap, for example, often wants a good scratch right after, as if their legs need a good flexing after tightening during a snooze. But declawed cats stretch after napping, too, and they don’t need their claws to do it, so there is less science behind this theory.
Others suggest that scratching is a good way for a cat to keep their claws in good working order, as scratching helps remove the outer layers of the nail. But cats often bite this top layer of nail off – no scratching required. It's not clear that cats scratch furniture as a way of manicuring their nails.
How to discourage cats from scratching furniture
Regardless, cats who scratch furniture can be difficult to live with and it pays to find good, cat-friendly ways to discourage scratching on certain surfaces.
The best way is to provide appealing surfaces for scratching and make the surfaces you don’t want scratched unappealing.
How to make scratching posts more appealing
Appealing surfaces are cat-dependent: some cats prefer a vertical scratching post, others want a horizontal surface. Provide both and see which your cat gravitates to. Both kinds of posts need to be tall enough (at least 36” high) or long enough to allow the cat to stretch fully and have enough surface area: at least 6 to 8 inches wide. Note that smaller cats need smaller posts/larger cats need taller or longer ones, so these recommendations are just guidelines. Most cats seem to prefer flat boards, rather than cylindrical ones, and they like the corners or edges to be scratch-able as well.
Most cats like surfaces to be loosely woven, with a vertical weave, and easily shredded, even though many cat scratching posts are made of carpeting, which is neither. Many cats prefer a surface that is already shredded, so don’t be too quick to replace a post that seems worn to you.
Buy furniture that is less appealing
Sometimes providing a really great scratching surface is all you need to do to keep a cat away from your expensive new living room set. If not, you may have to work harder to make the furniture you care about more unappealing to your cat.
First, if you know you have a cat who loves furniture, choose your pieces wisely. Cats love nubby surfaces, so consider something without a weave, like a thick, high-quality microfiber. Microfiber, also called ultrasuede, is made of tiny polyester and nylon threads that are bonded together and thus resistant to scratching. One of the disadvantages of microfiber is that it can be a magnet for cat hair, but this may be offset by the fabric’s stain resistance.
Leather may be a good covering choice, too, as it is smooth, resists cat hair, and is easy to wipe clean of urine or vomit. However, cat nails may leave scratches on the surface of the leather if your little athlete is skittering around the house and over the furniture at full speed. And cat nails can leave holes in leather, too. Little holes become bigger holes over time.
Make your existing furniture less appealing
If you already have furniture you’re in love with, try covering it with something smooth, like a piece of tinfoil (double-sided tape can help it stay in place), or a bit of plastic floor runner. Sometimes floor runner turned pointy-side up works best. These are not necessarily attractive solutions from the homeowner’s point of view, but they may protect your investment in your furnishings. And you can always take the plastic floor runner off when company comes.
Other options when you are desperate
There are electronic scat mats that vibrate when the cat walks on it, and they may be worth a try if you’re stumped. Another option is spraying furniture with a citrus scent as cats find the odor unpleasant.
The most dedicated scratchers might benefit from a nail covering, like Soft Paws, which are applied over the natural nail with surgical glue. These can help keep damage from a scratching cat to a minimum, although they fall off naturally every few weeks and must be continuously replaced.
What not to do if your cat is scratching your furniture
Do not punish scratching cats. Period.
Furniture scratching is a natural behavior and punishing does not put an end to it. You may succeed in momentarily halting destructive behavior, but you may also damage trust between you and your pet at the same time.
Do not resort to declawing a scratching cat. Declawing can cause permanent, chronic pain in the paws and back, and lead to other behavioral problems, including litter-box issues. Do you and your cat a favor and do not create a bigger problem than you started with.
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 Feldman, Hilary N. “Methods of Scent Marking in the Domestic Cat.” Canadian Journal of Zoology, vol. 72, no. 6, 1994, pp. 1093–1099., doi:10.1139/z94-147.
 Estep, Ph.D., Daniel Q., and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D. “Why Cats Scratch.” Cat Fancy, Mar. 1994.