Training a Cat to Use a Scratching Post
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. It is a way for a cat to self-sooth. A cat’s paws have scent glands—when a cat scratches she leaves her mark and her scent. This reassures her that this is her territory. Scratching is also a cat’s way of showing others—and reassuring herself—that she is part of the family. As such, it is a type of communication. For all of these reasons, indoor cats must be provided with appropriate places to scratch.
Cats are almost as easy to train to a scratching post as they are to train to a litter box. The biggest obstacle to their training is not providing adequate posts and pads from the moment they have the desire to use one, or at least from the moment they arrive 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 feces and urine leave scent messages behind, so does scratching. The deposition of this scent is self-soothing—it also encourages further scratching in that same spot. So the first step to training your cat to use a scratching post is to buy one!
Each cat in the household needs to have a tall, sturdy post made of material the cat can sink her claws into, to give a good tug. A 3-foot tall sisal post with a weighted bottom that keeps the post steady when the cat scratches and tugs is perfect. (Avoid posts made of carpet—you don’t want to get the cat into the habit of scratching carpet.) Scratching is done in core areas of a cat’s territory, so placement is also important. A scratching post should be in the room where the family spends its 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 placement in places where a post won’t fit. These pads can be of sisal or cardboard. Ideally you should have a post or pad in every room the cat will use. If you have a large family room and multiple cats, have a post on each end (or a post on one end and a pad on the other). The stretching that accompanies the scratching, as well as the scent deposition and actual scratching are all needed for the cat’s mental and physical well-being.
Often, just providing the proper posts and pads, and placing them correctly is sufficient. But why take any chances? Here are some more steps to encourage scratch post and pad use. When you first bring your cat home, confine him to a room with his litter box and his tall, sturdy scratch post. If he is not afraid of you, play with him near the post, to encourage him to scratch it. A wand toy is ideal for this. Wiggle the wand toy on the scratching post, and he will claw the post while going for the toy. Praise him and give him a treat when he does so. If he is shy, give him time to get used to you, by spending quiet time in his room, ignoring him. Let him observe you, see you are safe to approach. Be cool when he does so—too much enthusiasm is scary to a cat. After the cat has used the scratch post, it has his scent on it. If there are no other pets in the house and he trusts you, open the door and let him explore. (If there are other pets, proper introductions are a must. See my New Cat handout). Encourage him to use the other posts and pads by waving the wand toy on and near them. If he is over a year old, you can also sprinkle catnip on the posts or pads, which may encourage their use. (Kittens have not yet developed the catnip reaction.) Do not take hold of his feet and rub them on the post! This is counter-productive. However, you may scratch the post yourself, since the scratching sound can elicit scratching.
Watch your cat during his first time exploring the house. Sofas and upholstered chairs can look like fine scratching spots to a cat, especially if he had used them as such in his previous home. If the cat has been conditioned to the use of sisal and cardboard, and there are many of these posts and pads available, your furniture is likely to go unnoticed. If the cat does get into the scratching position on your furniture, entice him 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 gravitated to, then you need to put one there! Praise him and give him a treat when he 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, leads to object scratching. If the cat seems focused on using the furniture, and he is new to your house, you can have him stay in a room with all of his supplies (litter box, scratch post, bed, toys) when you do not have time to supervise him. Do not do this to a cat that has lived in the house for a time and considers your entire house his territory! It will be too stressful, and when he finally gets out of confinement he might alleviate his stress by scratching and marking his territory. In these cases, you must temporarily cover your furniture: use double-sided tape if he is just scratching the corners; use a thin plastic shower curtain if he is scratching other parts. After eliminating the furniture as a choice, he will become habituated to using the posts and pads, they will acquire his scent, and both of these will lead to his wanting to use them as his exclusive scratching spots. You can now uncover the furniture when you are watching. After many successful times, you may uncover it for good.
If you provide the proper posts and pads from the start, and place them correctly, you may not have to do any training at all. A tall, sisal post can be purchased online for under $100. Sisal or cardboard inclined planes or pads are less than $50. Just as the litter box may be the most appealing spot to eliminate, you can make the posts and pads the most appealing spots to scratch. When it is time to replace old, worn-out posts or pads, put the new one right next to the old one. Leave both of them there until the cat has been using the new one for several days.
Courtesy of Patience Fisher, DipFBST,CVA,BSBIO,MSCE, www.patienceforcats.com