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.

A tabby cat digs his claws into the arm of a settee. Scratching is a natural behaviour for cats so we have to provide scratching posts
Photo: Africa Studio/Shutterstock/ZT

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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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 why cats scratch and what the best scratching post is from a cat's perspective.

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.

A black and white cat sits on a cat condo with a sisal (rope) post. This type of post is associated with fewer complaints about scratching in the wrong place.
Photo: Stefano Garau/Shutterstock/ZT

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. That said, these days you can get some floor-to-ceiling scratching posts that are very sturdy, are a great way to provide vertical use of space for your cat, and are likely to be acceptable for scratching. 

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.

If you'd like more tips on caring for your cat, check out my book Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat HappyModern Cat magazine calls it "a must-have guide to improving your cat's life."

Purr is definitely a book your cat would want you to read
Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy

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. 

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

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