A Cat's Gotta Scratch ...

Research shows that if a scratching post is available, cats will use it.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Scratching is a normal behaviour for a cat, but can be problematic for owners if a cat chooses to scratch the wrong items. A new study by Manuel Mengoli et al in Italy investigates feline scratching behaviour amongst a mixed sample of cats.

Photo: Imageman / Shutterstock

Cats scratch for a variety of reasons, including communicating with other cats via visible scratch marks and olfactory signals left behind from glands in the plantar pads. It may also keep their claws sharp and healthy. Although scratching is a normal behaviour, it can also be a sign of stress. As the authors say, “the use of scratching as a marking signal is normal in a wide territory, but when it is observed repeatedly inside the house, it is reasonable to conclude that the animal is not feeling safe in that specific environment.”

Cat owners were recruited via vet clinics and the departments of Psychology and Veterinary Medicine at the University of Padua. They completed a survey about their cat and its scratching behaviour. 

Surveys were completed for 128 cats, including both indoor and outdoor cats, a range of ages, males and females, neutered or not. (Unusually, the paper does not give details of the cat demographics, such as average age). 

The questionnaire asked about access to outdoors, whether or not a scratching post was available in the home, how often the cat used it, and how often (if ever) the cat scratched other items.

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The results showed differences in scratching behaviour. The cats most likely to scratch ‘inappropriate’ items were entire males, who did not have a scratching post in the home. On the other hand, some cats hardly ever scratched inappropriate places, particularly neutered males, and intact females with access to the outdoors.

The most important finding for cat owners is this: If a scratching post is present, cats use it. 

If your cat is causing problems with scratching behaviour, the obvious solution is to get a scratching post. If this does not solve the problem, then you may also need to consider the kind of post you provide.

Although this study did not look at the type of post, it seems that some cats have preferences. Since posts can be made of different materials, including sisal, carpet and wood, it could be worth experimenting to find which your cat prefers. In fact, subsequent research has studied which is the best scratching post from the cat's perspective.

Another factor to bear in mind is the height of the post relative to the cat, since cats often like to stretch upwards while they scratch. Some posts on the market are of a height that is better suited to small cats, and bigger cats may prefer a taller post. Also, some cats like to scratch on a horizontal surface as well as a vertical one.

It is important for cat owners to know that scratching posts, if provided, will be used. De-clawing is illegal in many places, including the UK, Australia and Brazil, but is common in some other countries including the US. The procedure is called onychectomy, and involves amputation of the last bone of each toe on the front paws (i.e. not just removal of the claws, because the claws are attached to the bone).

In his book Cat Sense, John Bradshaw writes that “The initial pain resulting from the procedure may be controlled with analgesics, but we do not know whether cats subsequently feel phantom pain due to the nerves that have been severed. However, cats and humans have nearly identical mechanisms for feeling pain, and four out of five people who have fingers amputated have phantom pain, so cats most likely do as well… Declawed cats are more likely to urinate outside their litter trays than other indoor cats, possibly because of the stress of this phantom pain.”

So the finding that cats will use scratching posts, while obvious to some, will help many cats and their owners.

What kind of scratching post does your cat prefer?

P.S. Sign up now to get my free guide, Seven Secrets to a Happy Cat and learn how to have a better relationship with your pet. 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. She is the founder of the popular blog Companion Animal Psychology, where she writes about everything from training methods to the human-canine relationship. She also writes a column for Psychology Today and has received the prestigious Captain Haggerty Award for Best Training Article in 2017. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband and two cats.

Useful links:

Bradshaw, J. (2013) Cat Sense: The Feline Enigma Revealed. London:Allen Lane.
Mengoli M, Mariti C, Cozzi A, Cestarollo E, Lafont-Lecuelle C, Pageat P, & Gazzano A (2013). Scratching behaviour and its features: a questionnaire-based study in an Italian sample of domestic cats. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 15 (10), 886-92 PMID: 23492353

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