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Feature March 2015 Issue

Inappropriate Scratching

We offer a step-by-step guide to gently condition your cat to scratch a post or tree instead of your expensive sofa. Here’s how to get started.

The tendency of cats to scratch rugs and furniture often frustrates their owners. Cats do need to scratch, but they don’t have to ruin the household furniture in the process.

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It's impossible to change your cat's instinct and desire to scratch. But that doesn't mean you can't be the one to choose the appropriate surface and location.

In order to effectively redirect the behavior, it is important to understand that cats scratch for a variety of reasons. For one, scratching helps keep their nails trimmed. The scent glands located on the bottom of their paws enable them to leave a mark for other cats. They scratch to mark and define their territory — with the visual shredding serving as a “this is my turf” declaration to other animals. Cats also scratch to release excess energy and often incorporate scratching when they stretch after a nap.

Some people resort to punishing their cats — or having them declawed — in an effort to save their furniture. Although using punishment may temporarily stop cats from scratching the furniture, it can also result in some unfortunate consequences. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, veterinarian and Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, does not recommend using on punitive techniques to correct unwanted feline behaviors.

“Punishments — such as squirt bottles, scat mats or shaking cans with coins inside — cause stress in the household,” says Dr. Dodman. “The cat doesn’t understand why the owner is doing these things. She learns how to avoid punishment by scratching when the owner is not in view. These punishments can also lead cats to not trust their owners. There is always a more positive way. It is always better to teach a cat what to do instead.”

Use reward-based methods

Dr. Dodman favors using reward-based training methods — including clicker training — to effectively teach cats to scratch more appropriate objects, such as sturdy scratching posts. A science-based training system, clicker training rewards and reinforces animals for desired behaviors. It is based on the premise that animals are more apt to repeat a behavior when it is immediately followed by a reward or a positive consequence. Clicker training uses both a primary reinforcer and a conditioned reinforcer.

You should repeatedly pair the sound of the clicker with something your cat desires, like a very special treat, so that she gains a positive association with the sound. Schedule the clicker training sessions before meal times when your cat is hungry, and make sure it is a quiet time with no distractions or other household pets nearby.

Begin the session with about ten small treats in one hand, and the clicker in the other. Click and then toss your cat a treat. Wait until she finishes the treat and makes eye contact with you before clicking and treating again. Pairing the treat with the clicker usually takes between five and 20 cycles. Limit the sessions to five to ten minutes.

Primary reinforcers are items or activities regarded as highly motivating to cats. Examples include treats, affection and grooming. Conditioned reinforcers are devices that perform the same action whenever they are activated. The most popular example is the clicker, a small plastic noisemaker. You push it to release the click sound to communicate to your cat that a correct behavior is being performed.

Be patient and consistent. Some cats quickly change their habits; others take a little longer to catch on. Regardless, once your cat is conditioned to scratch the post, her preference for it will be long lasting. As illustrated in the photo sequence, here are the steps necessary to re-direct your cat from scratching the sofa to clawing a scratching post or other preferred object.

Make the target of your cat's scratching, such as your sofa, less welcoming while providing a more appropriate object for her to scratch. You can apply double-sided tape on the area of the couch where your cat likes to scratch, or cover it with a sheet. Place a sturdy cat tree directly in front of the blocked area. The new surface needs to be tempting to your cat, such as sisal. You can sprinkle some catnip on the surface to make it even more appealing.

Reinforce and reward your cat when she claws the preferred object. Entice your cat to scratch by employing a target stick to direct the cat's behavior. While she is scratching the post, click once and immediately give her a treat. She should quickly realize that scratching the post is a rewarding behavior, preferable to scratching the now-unavailable sofa. Each time you see her scratching the post, click and give her a treat. After she consistently scratches the post, you can uncover the sofa.

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