How to Redirect Cat Clawing

Cats don't just claw things because they like it - they have to perform this task every day.  It's an important way for them to shed the outer sheaths on their claws and it's also one of the many ways they mark their territory.  But what do you do when they choose to claw something other than their scratching posts?  Catherine W. writes:

Toby loves to sharpen his claws on my beautiful rug which is thicker than usual. He has other options available to him - scratching post, jute pieces etc. I’ve tried a variety of commercial products on the rug to discourage him. Do you know of anything that would discourage him but not harm him? Thank you!

Catherine, the process of training Toby is twofold - you have to get him to associate good things with the scratching posts you want him to use while you also discourage him from clawing your rug.  With patience and consistency, you should be able to fix this little problem.

First, take a look at Toby's scratching posts from his point of view and try to figure out what it is about the rug that he likes so much better.  Are the scratching posts tall enough for him to get a full reach?  If not, you may need taller posts.  Are they stable enough that they never feel like they may topple over when he claws at them?  If not, you can work to stabilize or replace them with something more stable.  Are they in the same area as the rug he likes to claw?  If not, move them.  Many cats prefer marking high-traffic areas to make sure passers by notice that they've claimed that spot.  Are the scratching post surfaces satisfying to Toby?  If he likes the rug better, what is it about the rug that he likes?  Maybe he likes a horizontal surface.  If so, there are many inexpensive corrugated cardboard scratchers that are horizontal.  Maybe he likes the feel of the carpet, in which case he won't like rough sisal scratchers.  Many cats prefer rough surfaces, but not all of them.

Once you've sorted out alternate scratching surfaces, take the rug away and clean it thoroughly with an enzymatic cleaner like this one:

 
 

You'll need to remove all of Toby's scent markings from the rug and surrounding floor.  If you have a place to store the rug for a short time, it would be best to remove it entirely so it doesn't remain a temptation.  Just like humans, cats can get into behavioral patterns that are very hard for them to change.  If you can remove the rug long enough for Toby to establish a new scratching post pattern, it will be easier for him to continue with his new pattern than it is for him to resume the old one.

If you can't remove the rug, you can try using scents to keep him away from the areas you've cleaned.  A small, cloth or mesh bag filled with orange peels can be very effective, since most cats hate citrus scents.  You want to avoid any product, commercial or homemade, that uses essential oils as these have been shown to be harmful to cats.  The peels alone should give off enough odor to keep Toby away.

Once you have scratchers that you think should be to Toby's liking, you may need to show them to him and help him to associate good feelings with using them.  It may sound silly, but sometimes it helps to show him what you intend.  Put the scratchers in a prominent area and claw them yourself when he's around.  This not only illustrates what the post is for, it also deposits your scent on them.  If you see him examining the scratcher, give him a small treat.  If he uses the scratcher, wait until he's done and then praise him profusely and give him a treat.  Reinforce his behavior with rewards and he'll soon associate positive feelings with the surfaces you want him to use.

Of course, he may backslide and use the carpet again.  If he does, don't scold him or punish him in any way.  Cats never respond well to negative reinforcement.  The only message that Toby would get from such behavior is that you're not to be trusted.  Just continue to redirect the behavior by using positive reinforcement every time he gives his attention to the scratching post.

Catherine, we feel certain that with a little detective work and consistent behavior on your part, you should have Toby scratching his posts in no time.  We wish you all the best!