Living with cats, scratching is a fact of life. An ingrained, natural instinct, cats both enjoy and physically need to scratch and claw at surfaces. Unfortunately, in many situations, that need to scratch at objects collides with your furniture- and sharp cat claws can very quickly make mincemeat out of a nice couch. Aggressive scratching, to you, to your children, or to your other pets, can present a real health threat. One of the most common reasons behind giving up cats to shelters, as well owner requests to euthanize young cats, is scratching. In these cases, stopping the scratching may truly be a matter of life or death for your cat.
While there are several ways to curb unwanted scratching, the act of declawing cats has become a polarized issue. If you are trying to find a solution for your cats scratching problems, it is important to understand why your cat scratches, ways of preventing scratching, and to know what declawing actually entails, in order to make an informed decision.
The Behavior of Scratching
Scratching is part of the nature of cats. A claw is a natural tool for cats- in the wild, claws are the cats primary defense mechanism. Cats scratch when they are hurt, are scared or angry. In a domestic situation, this can result in a cat scratching another pet in the home when it is chased or feels threatened. Cats may scratch you or your children, perhaps in a form of play, or as a response to a perceived threat or anger.
Aside from just survival technique, evolution has made scratching an invaluable part of a cats behavior. Due to scent glands on their front paws, cats leave an “aroma mark” on any object they have scratched, saying “this is mine”. Scratching a piece of furniture marks that as the cats territory. As the aroma fades, the cat feels the need to re-mark the territory, leading to repeated scratching.
Scratching is the cats natural way of maintaining their claws. Cat claws are very hard, and grow from the inside out. Nails are first covered with a protective sheath, and as the nail grows out of the pad, this sheath must be removed to reveal the sharp claw underneath. Cats scratch surfaces to pull away this sheath, and encourage the nails to grow more quickly. In addition, scratching allows the cats to wear down over-long claws, and re-shape them to their natural state.
The small size of the cat means that they must use their ability to get to greater hights as an advantage over their larger, earth-bound predators. Cats seek high perches, and indoors, this usually means using the “jungle” of your home to reach the higher vantage point. Their claws so helpfully assist them scurry up your drapes, or scamper up a bookshelf- natural to them, but a damaging situation for your furniture!
Finally, cats simply enjoy scratching. They keep in shape by performing their own brand of stretches, working their muscles as they pull and stretch.
It should be obvious by now- try as you might, you won’t be able to stop your cat from scratching. It’s simply an unavoidable, natural behavior. Thankfully, cats are adaptive, and with some time and effort, most cats can be trained to scratch where you want them to.
Scratching posts can be a valuable tool to end unwanted scratching. Available at most pet stores, and even easily made at home with a few simple tools, scratching posts can give your cat on outlet for scratching, while saving the upholstery in your home.
Selecting a proper scratching post for your cat is a vital part of making the transition to a scratching post a success. They come in various shapes and sizes; some even have toys or perches built into them. A good scratching post should be at least tall enough for your cat to fully stretch out his or her body. Stability is crucial- if it is not secure, the cat will not use it. The fabric covering the post matters as well- choose something that will be easy for the cat to get purchase on with the claws, such as a tightly woven carpet material. What your cat likes so much about your couch is the fact that it shreds nicely. A post that he can get his claws into and shred will help to satisfy the scratching urge.
In order for the scratching post to work, the same factors that make other furniture so appealing must be taken into consideration. Cats scratch to mark their territory, so a post should be placed in an area that is used by the family frequently, not hidden, to encourage “marking” of the post. Put the post near the cats favorite scratching object, and interact around the post, getting him used to it. Play with toys around the post, and encourage the cat to get up on it, and try it out- this will help to solidify the posts status in their mind. With time, the post can become a favorite place, and your cat will regard it as his own., and prefer it to other furniture. `
Cats that are reluctant to make the switch to the post may need some encouragement. Covering up their favorite scratching sites with aluminum foil will help to deter them, and send them looking for a more enjoyable site. More than one post may be necessary to cover all of your cats favorite sites and rooms. Behavior modification in the form of a spray bottle of water may be necessary at to help discourage scratching in inappropriate places- but make sure that you immediately place the cat on the scratching post after they have been reprimanded.
If your cat refuses to use a scratching post, or you find that it is not using it exclusively, Soft Paws may be a valuable tool to stop the destruction, and to protect children and other pets from cat scratches. Developed by a veterinarian, Soft Paws are soft rubber nail caps that are applied to the freshly trimmed nails of the cat. Applied by your veterinarian, or easily applied at home, soft paws are attached to the nail with adhesive, and stay attached for several months, rendering the cats claws unable to produce a destructive scratch. Soft paws are generally well tolerated in most cats, easy to apply, and are a humane and safe way to end scratching in your cat.
Declawing – What you need to know
Excessive scratching is one of the main reasons cats are given up to shelters and put to sleep. In extreme situations, a declawing procedure may be considered. Outlawed in many European countries, declawing is a surgical procedures offered by some veterinarians in the United States and Canada. Before deciding to declaw your cat, it is imperative to fully understand this procedure, the complications and side effects it can have, and why so many people are vehemently against it.
First, any cat that is declawed MUST be kept indoor at all times. As the owner, you must be willing to be extremely vigilant about making sure your cat never goes outside. Claws are the primary means of defense a cat has against predators, and without their claws, cat are at the mercy of nature. Too often, cats that are declawed and slipped out the door are brought to veterinarians after being severely attacked, maimed, or even killed by animals outside against which they had no defense.
Contrary to popular belief, declawing the cat is not simply removal of the toenails. The claw of the cat is in fact not a toenail, but instead is attached to the bone. In order to remove the claws, the last bone of the toe must be removed. In essence, declawing is an amputation of the last bone of the joint on each toe. Declawing, also called an onychectomy, is a complex surgical procedure with a prolonged recovery time, and has the potential for lifelong complications if not performed correctly.
In order to amputate the bone at the end of the cats toe, ligaments and nerves are cut and destroyed. Even with the most skilled surgical procedure, it takes weeks and months for these underlying structures to heal, and during that time the cat must still walk and jump on their newly amputated toes. The nerves in the toes of the cat take even longer to heal, and can cause constant neuropathic pain for a long time after the surgery.
Declawing is not a simple surgical procedure, and should not be treated as such. Cats are placed under general anesthesia for the procedure, and medication will be given throughout to manage pain. The cats feet are surgically prepped for surgery, and a tourniquet is placed on the legs to reduce bleeding at the site of the amputation. The last digit of each toe is exposed surgically, and then the last bone of the toe is amputated at the joint space. Care must be taken to avoid cutting the attached pad of the foot, as this can lead to further bleeding and pain at the incision site. Any obvious source of bleeding is stopped, then surgical glue is generally used to close the incision. After this procedure is repeated on each toe of the foot, the foot is wrapped snuggly in a multi-layer gauze bandage to curb bleeding and reduce swelling.
After surgery, the bandages on the feet will be carefully inspected and replaced as needed. Excessive bleeding at the incision sites is the most common complication after declawing. Most veterinarians will require hospitalization for several days after the surgery to ensure proper healing is taking place, and the post operative pain is being managed.
After surgery, the cat will be sore for some time. It is important to remember that cats have both a high tolerance for pain, and are extremely proud- often signs of pain are virtually invisible to us, even though the cat is in serious pain. After declawing, cats must learn to walk differently without the first joints of the toe, and the change in distribution of body weight can cause arthritis as they age.
A declaw procedure on a kitten should be done no earlier than 3-4 months of age. Kittens heal more quickly, and generally tolerate the procedure better than adult cats. If you plan to have the procedure done, it should be done while the cat is still young, ideally under 1 year of age. The procedure should be avoided in older cats, as they will experience more pain, heal much more slowly than young cats, and have a much higher risk of complications.
If you decide to have your cat declawed, the most important decision to make is where to have the procedure done. Talk to your veterinarian about the procedure. Some vets refuse to perform declaws, but may be able to give you a recommendation to a doctor who performs them. Declawing using a laser is one of the most recent advances in surgery, and the laser procedure reduces the amount of bleeding and swelling.
If performed incorrectly, declawing can leave a cat with permanent, chronic pain in its toes. In these cases, the cats may be visibly lame, and have a limp. Because of the constant pain, their behavior may change, becoming more aloof and distant, reluctant to interact with you. Decreased activity level can lead to weight gain, which can lead to a variety of health problems as the cat ages.
Even in cats that do not suffer long term complications, declawing may alter their personality. Without their claws to protect them, cats sense their new, more vulnerable status, and often turn to biting as their sole defensive tactic. Some cats can become more aggressive, and even without claws, can do severe damage to you, your children, or other pets in the household.
After declawing, some cats develop a fear of the litterbox, because scratching in the litter can be painful for their feet. This can create a whole new set of problems and mess in the house, and this possibility must be taken into account when deciding to declaw your cat.
Despite the variety of opinions on the subject of declawing, the procedure can be a necessary evil. Infections in the toe, gangrene, cancer, or other bone problems may necessitate a declawing procedure in order to save or prolong a cats life. In some cases, extensive behavior modification may fail to curb aggressive or recreational scratching. As an alternative to euthanasia or giving up a cat, declawing may in fact be a viable option.
Cats are complex, intelligent creatures that have evolved to use their claws for a variety of ways. Unfortunately, when cats and humans coexist, there can be a difference in opinion of where and what can be scratched at, both in recreation and as a defense mechanism. If you are having a scratching problem with your cat, it is imperative to research and make a conscious effort to change their behavior, or at least make it less destructive. In some situations, declawing procedure may be considered to solve the problem when all other methods have failed. In these cases, careful selection of the veterinarian performing the procedure, as well as watchful nursing after surgery to prevent complications, can help to make this difficult procedure go as well as possible.