Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
My kitties have multiple different items they can scratch on: cat trees, scratching boxes, and scratching posts. But Poupée, one of my three cats, will not scratch on any of them, and her nails are getting very long. Sometimes she tries to scratch on the living room carpet, so we’ve tried to get her to use a carpeted scratching post. We’ve tried moving her paws back and forth on it to show her what it’s for, but she doesn’t seem to get it. She recently had to be treated for an ingrown toenail because she doesn’t get her claws worn down by scratching. How can we humans teach a kitty cat where to scratch?
Siouxsie: Ah, scratching! I can’t tell you how much I love a good stretch and scratch!
Thomas: In fact, Mama got us a wonderful new scratching post covered with sisal. And it’s nice and tall and sturdy, so I can get a great scratch and I don’t have to worry about the post falling over.
Dahlia: I’m not such a big fan of scratching. Well, except for the wood on the back of the futon.
Siouxsie: What we’re saying, Iris, is that we understand your issue of having one cat that just won’t scratch on the proper things.
Thomas: Siouxsie and I have tried to teach Dahila about the joys of the sisal post, but she says it hurts her pads and she doesn’t want to scratch it. We think she won’t like scratching wood as much when she gets a splinter in her paw!
Dahlia: You guys are just mean!
Siouxsie: Anyway, Iris, here’s the thing. As you’ve probably seen, we cats have very strong preferences for scratching surfaces. We also have preferences for horizontal or vertical scratching.
Thomas: It sounds like Poupée not only likes the feel of carpeting on her nails, but she’s a horizontal scratcher.
Dahlia: So how do you get Poupée to scratch on a post rather than your carpets? First, examine your carpet. Is it a low-pile, nubbly carpet — which you usually find in apartments — or is it a shaggier surface? You’ll want to make sure your scratching post feels similar to the carpeting she likes to scratch.
Siouxsie: We recommend not rubbing your cat’s paws on the scratching post. Cats usually don’t understand what you’re doing, and when you make a cat paw a scratching post instead of attracting her to the post with pleasant activities, your efforts can backfire.
Thomas: Instead, if Poupée likes catnip, try rubbing some on the scratching post.
Dahlia: Sometimes when a person lightly scratches their fingernails on a post, a cat will be tempted to see what all the action is about. That’s how Mama got Siouxsie and Thomas interested in the sisal post. As soon as they dug their own claws into it they realized how good it felt, and now they use it all on their own.
Siouxsie: You can play with Poupée around the scratching post, too. Dangle a “thing on a string” toy on or near the post. When she comes to play with the toy, she may realize that the post feels really good to scratch!
Thomas: Since Poupée is a horizontal scratcher, try tipping the scratching post over on its side. Between play on the post, fingernail rubbing, and catnip, she may find that this “new” horizontal post works well for her.
Dahlia: We generally recommend against carpeted posts, especially if you’re trying to train a cat away from scratching on your carpets. It can be confusing for a cat to be able to scratch carpet in one place but not another.
Siouxsie: Your best bet is to buy a post coated in sisal or rope. That way Poupée will begin to see that this post not only feels good to scratch, but it’s clearly not the carpet.
Thomas: Corrugated cardboard scratchers can be a wonderful and inexpensive solution for retraining a carpet scratcher. We know you said you’ve tried them without success, but maybe if you tempt Poupée to the corrugated scratch-box with the tactics we mentioned above, she may learn to love it.
Dahlia: I’ve actually started to like the corrugated scratcher Mama got for us. It doesn’t hurt my paws as much, but it still lets me get some good claw maintenance!
Siouxsie: We know not everybody has a lot of money, and a good scratching post — made with sisal, and very sturdy — can cost at least $60 US. But don’t despair. If you have a friend who’s handy and has a few simple tools, there are some great instructions online for how to make a DIY scratching post or cat tree for closer to $20. You might even be able to get most of what you need for free, via castoffs at home supply stores or construction sites, or through Freecycle. If you live in a more rural area, try going to your local transfer station or dump (we understand that a dump is called a “tip” in the UK) and see if you can find some discarded lumber from home improvement projects.
Thomas: You’ll still have to trim your cat’s claws to avoid ingrown toenails. Even when we scratch, we can’t groom our dewclaws (or “thumb claws,” as we call them) properly. Polydactyl cats are particularly prone to this issue.
Dahlia: Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has an excellent video demonstration of how to trim your cat’s claws. If you’re on a lower-bandwidth connection, Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine has a how-to guide that includes photos.
Siouxsie: Good luck, Iris. Let us know how things turn out!