Keeping ‘claw’ and order in your home

Last month, Denver became the first city outside of California to ban the declawing of cats. In September, the American Association of Feline Practitioners strengthened its position on the procedure, stating that it strongly opposes declawing.

Declawing (onychectomy) has been controversial for years, but the procedure, surgical amputation of the toe bone – think having your fingers chopped off at the first knuckle – is increasingly under fire. Potential complications include claw regrowth and bony remnants that cause pain or lameness.

Cats scratch. It’s not only a normal behavior for them, it’s an essential one. Just as you “mark your territory” with art, photographs or furniture of a certain style, cats lay claim to a place through scent and visual markers. Scratching performs both functions by leaving gouges – the higher the better – in the scratched item as well as depositing scent from glands in the cat’s paws. Both signals tell other cats that yours is a force to be reckoned with and help cats feel comfortable in their environment. Scratching keeps claws sharp and removes the dead outer layer of the claw. And we can infer from our own experience that stretching – a big part of scratching action – feels good.

“Scratching has a communication function, it has a grooming function, it has a comfort function,” says veterinary behaviorist Debbie Horwitz in St. Louis. “It isn’t really in the best welfare of cats to declaw them, to remove their digits, simply because it’s easier than us doing something else to stop a normal but unwanted behavior.”

It can be frustrating when a cat scratches an expensive carpet or piece of furniture, but a little feline psychology and feng shui go a long way toward solving the problem. Teaching a cat where to scratch involves not only choosing the right size and type of post but also placing it in an area that gives your cat the most bang for his communication buck.

Cats scratch in both vertical and horizontal positions. A vertical scratching post should be at least 3 feet high with a sturdy base so the cat can stretch out to full length as he lets loose with his claws. Ceiling-height posts encourage climbing as well, which is good exercise and allows cats to enjoy a high vantage point where they can feel safe and survey their surroundings. Horizontal posts don’t have to be long, but cats will appreciate sturdiness and texture.

Placement is important. Cats like to show off their scratching prowess. If you shove the post down in the basement or some other out-of-the-way area, no one can see his masterpiece. With the number of attractive and stylish cat trees available, there’s no reason not to have one front and center.

“I have one in my kitchen (that) is a big platform so he can look out the window,” Dr. Horwitz says. “I have one in my family room, which is where I spend time watching TV, and I have one in the dining room.”

Placing a post in areas where you spend time and next to items that your cat might otherwise scratch encourages its use and allows you to notice unwanted scratching and redirect your cat’s attention to the post. Run your fingers up it – he’ll be attracted by the motion and sound. A product called Feliscratch uses pheromones and catnip to entice cats to use the post. Its blue coloring enhances the visual message of the scratch marks.

Teaching a cat scratching manners protects our belongings, but it has a deeper benefit, Dr. Horwitz says. Preserving the natural, instinctive behaviors of cats enhances their well-being.

“They have a lot of natural behaviors that are objectionable to us, but we should give them alternatives to do those normal behaviors in a way that they’re not objectionable to us or other people.”

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker.