Scratch here, not there! Train a cat to use a scratching post

How to train a cat to use a scratching post

Praise your cat when she uses the scratching post. Photo: Magdanatka/Shutterstock.com

Feline behaviour consultant, Patience Fisher explains how simple it is train a cat to use a scratching post and pads rather than the furniture.  Just as the litter box can be the most appealing spot to eliminate, you can make the scratching posts and pads the most appealing spots to scratch.

Fisher says the biggest obstacle to train a cat to use a scratching post is not providing adequate posts and pads from the moment the cat arrives in their new home.  A new cat owner would not dream of not supplying a litter box, but many do not purchase a tall, sturdy post before bringing their cat or kitten home.

Just as a cat’s faeces and urine leave scent messages behind, so does scratching.  The pads of a cat’s feet contain scent glands, and the deposition of this scent is self-soothing.  It also encourages further scratching in that same spot.  So the first step to train your cat to use a scratching post is to buy one!

Why cats scratch

Cats need to scratch for physical, mental, and social reasons.  Scratching enables cats to shed the outer sheath of their claws, to maintain claw health.  Sinking the claws in and stretching is also beneficial for the cat’s muscles.  Scratching is a natural way for a cat to maintain mental health, especially during stressful times and is a way for a cat to help herself relax.

Scratching is also a cat’s way of showing others this is her territory – and reassuring herself that she is part of the family.  As such, it is a type of communication. For all these reasons, indoor cats must be provided with appropriate places to scratch.

A 3-foot tall sisal-wound post with a weighted bottom that keeps the post steady when the cat scratches and tugs is perfect. More about what to look for in scratching posts.

Where to put a scratching post?

Scratching is done in core areas of cat’s territory, so placement is important.  A scratching post should be in the room where the family spends a lot of time.  Cats scratch objects when they are excited, so a post somewhat in the vicinity of the doorway where family members enter the house is also important.  Cats often scratch after a nap, so provide one near good napping spots.  Horizontal or inclined pads are handy for places where a post won’t fit. These pads can be sisal or cardboard. Ideally, you should have a post or pad in every room the cat will use.

Train a cat to use the scratching post

When you first bring your cat home, confine your her to a room with her litter box and her tall, sturdy scratching post.  If she is not afraid of you, play with her near the post to encourage her to scratch it.  A wand toy is ideal, you can touch the post with the want toy.  Praise her and give her a treat when she is playing. If she is shy, give her time to get used to you by spending quiet time in her room, ignoring her.  Let your cat observe you, see that you are safe, and approach you.  Be cool when she does so – too much enthusiasm is scary to a cat!

After the cat has used the scratching post, it has her scent on it.  If there are no other pets in the house, and she trusts you, open the door and let her explore.  If there are other pets, encourage her to use the other posts and pads by waving the wand toy on and near them.  If she is over a year old, you can also sprinkle cat-nip on the posts or pads, which may encourage their use (kittens have not yet developed the catnip reaction). Do not take hold of her feet and rub them on the post! However, you may scratch the post yourself, since the scratching sound may elicit scratching.

What if you cat goes for the furniture?

Entice her away and to the scratching post using a wand toy or a treat. If you do not have a scratching post located near the furniture the cat was attracted to, you need to put one there!  Praise her and give her a treat when she uses the post. Do not ever scold, much less yell or hit the cat for scratching the furniture. Excitement, whether born of play or fear may lead to object scratching.

If your cat seems focused on using the furniture and she is new to your home, you can keep her in one room with all of her supplies (litter box, scratching post, bed and toys) when you do not have time to supervise her.  Do not do this to a cat who has lived in your house for a time and considers your entire house her territory.  It will be too stressful. In these cases, you must temporarily cover your furniture. Use double-sided tape if she is scratching the corners; use a thin plastic shower curtain if she is using other parts. Offer proper scratching surfaces right next to the furniture she is scratching. Once she is using the scratching posts, you can uncover the furniture when you are watching.  After many successful times, you may uncover it for good.  Remember to praise the cat whenever she uses the pads and posts. 

So, if you provide the proper scratching posts and pads from the start and place them correctly, you may not have to do any training at all.

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This article (Scratch Here, Not There – Patience Fisher explains how simple it is to train a cat to use a scratching post and pad rather than the furniture) was first published in BARKS from the Guild, the official trade publication of the Pet Professional Guild, on July/2016 (pages 25-26).