What kind of scratching post do cats prefer?

It’s important to provide cats with the right kind of scratching post – and reward them for using it.

If you provide the right scratching posts, cats will  use them and it will help stop them from scratching the settee, like this tabby cat

By Zazie Todd, PhD

Inappropriate scratching is a fairly common complaint about cats. That’s inappropriate from the owner’s perspective, because from the cat’s point of view they are just doing what comes naturally. Luckily research can tell us what the best scratching post is from a cat's perspective.

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Why do cats scratch?

Cats scratch in order to mark their territory. It leaves a visual signal to other cats, as well as scent from glands in their paws. Scratching may also help them look after their claws, since it can remove old claw sheaths. Cats stretch out their claws and front legs when they scratch.

Cats like to scratch repeatedly in the same place, and if the place they choose is your furniture, that’s not so good for the furniture.

What kind of scratching post do cats like?

Research by Colleen Wilson DVM et al tells us what kind of scratching post to provide in order to keep both cat and owner happy.

Earlier research found that cats will use scratching posts if they are provided but did not look at the type of posts cats prefer. The new study suggests that both the types of scratching post and the use of positive reinforcement are important ways to prevent cats from scratching your furniture.

The scientists conclude,
“The ideal scratching post to recommend to a cat owner to help prevent inappropriate scratching is one that includes rope as a substrate, is upright vertical, 3 ft or higher, has two or more levels and a base width of between 1 and 3 ft.” 
The internet survey of 4105 cat owners asked people about the kind of scratching posts they provide, which one their cat prefers, and whether or not their cat scratches inappropriately.

The most commonly provided posts were not the same as the kind of posts that were linked to lower levels of inappropriate scratching, suggesting many owners are not providing the right kind of post for their cat.

83% of people provided more than one scratching post, and 89% said their cats used a scratching post at least once a day. Indoor cats were more likely to use a scratching post – but no more likely than cats allowed outdoors to scratch inappropriately.

61% of owners provided a carpet scratching post, 58% provided rope (sisal), 42% cardboard, 15% wood, and 4% other (the numbers do not add up to 100% because many people provided more than one type of post).

Owners said their cats preferred to use a rope scratching post. There was an age difference with older cats (10 years or more) being reported as preferring carpet.

Cats were equally reported to like a simple vertical post and a cat tree with two or more levels. Again there was an age difference, with cats 9 years or younger said to prefer a cat tree with two or more levels, followed by a vertical post; while cats 10 years or older were said to prefer a vertical post more. This may reflect age differences in agility or health.

Just over half of the owners (52%) said their cats scratched inappropriately. Many of these people said a scratching post was provided close to (within 5 foot of) the inappropriate scratching place.

What's the best scratching post for cats? Sisal posts - like the one this black-and-white cat has - are one of several favourites. Read more.

How to stop cats from scratching inappropriately

The results get interesting when comparing the posts provided in homes where cats did not scratch inappropriately compared to the homes where they did. Those people who provided a rope scratching post were the least likely to have a problem with scratching. As well, cat trees with one or more levels were associated with low levels of problem scratching. Since cats like high up spaces, this is also a good way to provide enrichment for your cat.

Cats were also less likely to scratch inappropriately if they had a tall post that was more than 3 foot high. This is useful to know because many posts for sale in pet stores are shorter than this and do not allow the cat to fully stretch out.

I like the Forte scratching post because it is 41" tall. This sisal scratching mat is a good option for cats that like something horizontal to scratch on, and comes in three sizes. There are cat trees with multiple levels for every cat, budget, and style, ranging from a basic cat tree to more modern cat trees like this one from Refined Feline with washable covers or this one with a cave.

Scratching posts that hang from or are affixed to the wall were associated with high levels of inappropriate scratching, suggesting that many cats do not like this kind of post.

Cats should have more than one scratching post, to give them a choice. If you have multiple cats, they each need to have access to scratching posts, as having multiple and separated resources is one of the five pillars of a healthy environment for cats.

Don't tell your cat off for scratching

Most people who saw their cat scratching inappropriately either told it off, removed it or redirected it, but none of these strategies had any effect on scratching behaviour.

However, if people rewarded their cat for using the scratching post, they were significantly less likely to have a problem with inappropriate scratching. For the purposes of this study, rewards included food/treats, petting, and praise.

"Many owners are not providing the right kind of post for their cat."

These results suggest that if your cat is scratching inappropriately, you should do two things. First of all, improve the scratching posts available to them. Although cats may have individual preferences, it seems like a good idea to have a tall rope (sisal) scratching post as well as a cat tree with different levels on it. Many cats also like a horizontal surface to scratch on, and many inexpensive cardboard ones are available. Secondly, when your cat scratches the post, give them a reward such as a cat treat or some wet food.

Julie Hecht describes using just this approach with her cat Josh. If you want suggestions for food rewards to use when training cats, see my interview with Dr. Sarah Ellis on The Trainable Cat.

This is an especially helpful study because so many people took part. It would be very interesting to see it followed up with experimental work that provided new scratching posts to cats.

The problem with declawing cats

Sadly, a number of people who took part in the study could not be included in the analysis because their cat was declawed. Onychectomy (as declawing is technically called) is illegal in many countries. It is a painful, irreversible procedure that may leave cats with phantom pain that in turn may cause behaviour problems. Please do not declaw your cat; if you are having problems, seek out a qualified feline behaviour consultant.

In many locations (including BC, where this blog is based), declawing is no longer legal because of the harm it can cause to cats.

Summary: The best scratching post and the importance of rewards

Scratching is a natural behaviour for cats and they need a ‘safe’ outlet for it. This study is very useful because it tells us what kind of scratching posts we should provide – and that we should reward our cats for using them.

What type(s) of scratching posts does your cat have?

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 award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and the forthcoming Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat 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:

Wilson C, Bain M, DePorter T, Beck A, Grassi V, & Landsberg G (2016). Owner observations regarding cat scratching behavior: an internet-based survey. Journal of feline medicine and surgery, 18 (10), 791-7 PMID: 26179574
Photos: Africa Studio (top) and Stefano Garau (both Shutterstock.com).

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  1. Interesting post. I think each cat is different. Cody has many scratching posts and frankly rarely uses any of them. He doesn't scratch the furniture either (and OF COURSE he has his claws). Cats scratch for a variety of reasons and some are just more prone to scratching than others. catchatwithcarenandcody

  2. Just a couple of things to add to a great post. Cats certainly have individual preferences when it comes to the type of post they use. When it comes to vertical scratchers, it’s important that the post is tall enough to allow the cat to scratch at full stretch. This enables them to really stretch out their backs and helps ease any tension in their shoulders. Stability is also important. Cat’s tend to be put off scratchers that wobble around!

    Some cats prefer horizontal scratchers over vertical posts. This can be especially true in the case of elderly cats and those with disabilities or deficits who might find the vertical posts a bit of a challenge.

    One of the most important aspects to scratching posts, as it is to all cat resources, is the location. If you find that your cat isn’t using his scratcher, try re-locating it to a place where he spends a lot of time. Having it in front of full-length windows can be a good idea, especially if it’s the type that has different levels. This allows cats to view their outside space from a place of height and security.

    Finally, the scratcher is very important to cats as it allows them to deposit scent from glands on their paw pads onto it. The more of their scent they can spread around their environment, the better they’ll feel!

  3. Very informative! My cats bear out the results of this study. My two 10-yr old boys prefer to scratch the carpeted areas of their kitty condo (even though it has a sisal rope post attached), while my 10-month old kitten loves her free-standing vertical sisal rope post and won't scratch carpet.

    She will, however, occasionally scratch the side of my favorite TV-watching chair, but usually only when she wants attention!

  4. One of my cats uses vertical 2 x 4's supporting a railing in my unfinished basement. She is so actively scratching at it, with splinters all over the place all the time, that I will likely need to replace those 2 x 4's within a couple years.
    My other cat also does that, however her favorite scratching item is the round flat corrugated cardboard center of one of those ping-pong ball track toys. I have to replace those regularly.
    I also have several Sissel scratching posts around the house, but they don't seem to use them.

  5. Henry rarely scratches, but I'm OK with him scratching my sofa, since it's microfiber and is very scratch resistant. When he does scratch it (which isn't too often), it doesn't do any damage.

  6. My spouse works at a company that makes cardboard cubes for cats and my cats go bananas over them! Not only can they scratch them but they can sit on them or in them.

  7. I put my posts next to the furniture my cats have a tendency to scratch. I don't know if that's good or bad or if I should try to move the posts little by little to somewhere away from the furniture. Any comments or suggestions?

    1. I found that the distance from each other is less important than making the scratching post a really enjoyable spot and the furniture less-so. If you put the post somewhere your cat will enjoy using it (enough space, good vantage point, not near doors or appliances or things they avoid) and make the furniture less enjoyable to scratch (put towels or blankets over, obstruct access with boxes or other furniture) they will choose the enjoyable option. Or they will if it's a type of scratching post they enjoy, and especially if you praise or reward them for using it. I put catnip on new posts to make them even more appealing.

  8. One of my cats was, unfortunately, already declawed (front paws) when I rescued her from the shelter, aged 12. She is now 16. She still "scratches" on a horizontal cardboard scratch board even though she has no claws. I do not know at what age she was declawed but she has obviously maintained this hardwired behavior and enjoys its added benefits of stretching, spreading scent etc. What's really sad is that, if she had not been declawed, she would be scratching appropriately on a scratch post because she that's exactly what she's doing now. There was not even the excuse of a "behavior problem" in her case so why on earth was it done? Vet's recommendation? Owner with no understanding of feline behavior? We have several other cats, and they like to scratch best on the trees outside or a tall sisal post.

  9. I love the PetFusion Ultimate scratcher...and so do my cats, the nice thing is it blends into our lounge too loooking a bit like an arty (and somewhat slightly inpractical) coffee table.


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