Training Your Cat to Scratch Appropriately

Cats scratch on things for several reasons (outlined below), and sometimes those things are our favorite rugs or pieces of furniture (or us). Oh no! So how do we teach our kitties to scratch appropriate surfaces - like scratching posts - so they can still act on their instincts while protecting our favorite home decor items? The answer is simple: we train them.

Contrary to popular belief, most cats can be trained, though training cats is not quite the same as training dogs! There are some similarities, though. Positive reinforcement is the best way to go, and favorite treats work as great incentives. If you want to train your cat, you can reinforce the desired behavior - in this case, using a scratching post or pad - by rewarding your kitty with a treat when s/he does it. Your goal is to elicit the wanted behavior first so that you can reinforce it (with a treat).

 

But Why Do Cats Scratch?

  • Stretch and exhibit normal feline behavior
  • Scent mark an object
  • Condition their claws
  • Ward away unwanted attention

 

In short, cats scratch because they're instively driven to do so! As good cat owners, we need to make sure they have an outlet for these behaviors. The best way to let your cats scratch without damaging you or your belongings is to supply them with adequate scratching surfaces and train them to use them. Each cat will have his/her own preference for types of scratching surfaces and angles. Until you establish your cat's favorite(s), you should have at least 3 angles of scratching surfaces: vertical, horizontal (flat on the ground), and 45 degree angle. 

Training Your Cat!

To entice your cat to start scratching on the posts/pads and not on furniture and rugs, bait the new scratching surfaces with catnip to attract him/her. (If your cat isn't affected by catnip, try valerian root.) Get a high-valued treat and clicker ready. After Kitty is attracted to the catnip and starts scratching at the pad/post, wait until the exact instant that s/he is finished scratching, and then “click,” say “good job!” and give 1-2 treats (1 at a time). Let Kitty finish the treat before giving the next. Occasionally you should “jackpot” a successful scratching - giving about 5 treats or something else s/he really likes. Varying the reward helps to improve retention of the behavior you want to encourage.

 

Ideally you should keep treats and the clicker on you. That way, anytime you see appropriate scratching, or hear it from another room, you can immediately “click” and give treats as soon as Kitty is done scratching. Create opportunities to reward and reinforce the behavior by baiting the scratchers with catnip or valerian root every couple of days.

Additionally, you will probably want to protect some surfaces from Kitty's claws - couches, chairs, rugs, etc. (depending on Kitty's preferences!).  For these, you can use double sided tape, aluminum foil, plastic wrap or bitter apple spray. These things will remain in place when you aren't there and work as deterrents when Kitty wants to scratch them. Loud noises or other punishments will deter Kitty when you're present, but they won't stop him/her when you're not present and have the potential to make Kitty afraid of you rather than discouraging the behavior you want to change. Additionally, it's far more productive to re-direct Kitty's inappropriate behavior than it is to react negatively. For example, if you hear Kitty start to claw your favorite rug, rather than yelling, pick up Kitty and take him/her to a scratching post/pad. 

Don't get frustrated if changing your cat's behavior takes longer than you expected. Some cats learn quickly, while others change their behaviors more slowly. By sticking with it and remaining consistent, you give Kitty an appropriate outlet for his/her scratching behaviors and reinforce the bond between the two of you through positive training. It's a win-win - high-5's for everyone! Of course, if you have any questions, give us a call or fill out our online form to schedule an appointment.

 

IMPORTANT NOTE: Before using a new clicker, you should “load” the clicker. This process is described on the packaging of the clicker itself, the goal is to associate the noise with the reward. Start by getting your pet’s attention and then “click”, say “good job” in a positive voice. Give the treat, leaving 1 second of time between each step. Repeat 5 times in a row for each session. Repeat this process about 3 sessions daily for about 3 days until you notice your pet expecting the treat when they hear the sound.

 

This article was written by Dr. Michael Messina from Rau Animal Hospital and has been edited for re-posting.

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