Thursday, April 1, 2010

Keep Your Cat from Scratching Furniture

Trying to completely stop your cat from scratching is like trying to keep a squirrel from gathering nuts: You won't succeed. It's what he's programmed to do. But with our four-step process, you can train your cat to leave the furniture alone and scratch his post instead. This week, we'll lay the groundwork with the first two steps.

Step 1: Understand Why Cats Scratch
Cats love to sharpen their claws. It's a completely instinctual, natural, and enjoyable behavior. It's also healthy (for your cat, if not your couch) and fulfills these needs:

Stretching and strengthening back and leg muscles. Cats crave this healthy form of exercise and toning, and scratching is the perfect way to do it.
Establishing their territory. Visible scratch marks and secretions from scent glands on their paws leave the territorial "This is my turf" message. Cats tend to repeatedly scratch the same spots to reinforce it.
Getting regular pedicures. Scratching helps strip away the worn, chipped outer claw to leave a sharp new one in its place.

Step 2: Protect Your Stuff
During the initial training period, it's wise to put something between kitty's claws and your furniture. Measures like these can help:
Apply double-sided tape to items into which your kitty likes to sink his nails. It's available at most pet stores.
Place throws or blankets on the arms and backs of sofas and chairs.
Spray a bitter smelling mist, such as bitter apple, to help keep your cat from using his claws to repeatedly mark a certain piece of furniture.
Trim and cover claws. Have your vet show you how to safely trim your cat's nails, and ask about soft, protective nail coverings, such as Soft Paws.

Part 2. we'll cover the third and fourth steps: Teaching your cat to scratch his post, not the furniture. we'll describe how to get him to do it in the right place -- the scratching post.

Step 3: Deter Bad Behavior
Not all experts agree on the specifics of how and when to use positive and negative reinforcement to train your cat. Here are a few of the most commonly recommended do's and don'ts:

Do try to distract your cat by making a loud noise while he's scratching the furniture -- not after -- so he makes the connection between the startling noise and the undesired behavior.
Don't take your cat to the post immediately after distracting him from inappropriate clawing. Your kitty may learn to associate his post with the loud noise.
Don't ever physically punish your cat. This could cause a fear-driven, aggressive response and weaken your cat's trust in you.
Don't force your cat to scratch the post by placing his paws on it. It might backfire and make him avoid it altogether.
Do give praise and treats whenever he scratches the post.

Step 4: Find the Perfect Post
To make your cat's post more enticing, follow these suggestions.
Provide the right angle. Offer both vertical and horizontal scratchers.
Find the right surface. Experiment with a variety of textures -- including corrugated cardboard, carpet, sisal rope, and soft wood -- until your cat finds one he prefers.
Go for sturdy, stable, and tall. If your cat can't stretch to his full body length when scratching, he'll more likely choose the back of your dining room chairs rather than a too-short post. Also, a wide base prevents wobbling.
Add some height. A tall cat tree may keep kitty from climbing screens and drapes.
Have extras. Put a few posts throughout the house in easy-to-get-to spots.

With a little patience and perseverance, these steps can help save your furniture without resorting to declawing your feline buddy, which is a potentially risky and controversial procedure (even among veterinarians). Look for more on this topic in a future tip.

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