Cat Paw

As I mentioned in some of my recent Vetstreet articles, the key to creating a happy home for your feline friend is to recognize and understand the essential “catness” of cats. We’ve discussed how cats need comfort, food, security and safety, and now it’s time to discuss how they need to scratch and play.

Once a cat’s basic resource needs are met, we can move on to providing safe ways to meet her claw care and activity needs with a minimum amount of stress for you. Scratching and climbing are part of the essence, or “telos” (remember that word from my previous articles?), of being a cat. Scratching also conditions and sharpens your cat's claws, which are her primary eating utensils and protective weapons, by removing old layers of the nails. Since your cat wants and needs to scratch, be sure to provide a variety of scratching posts and then teach her to use them. Until the cat can be trusted not to scratch and claw furniture, she should not be allowed unsupervised access to the house. If she has a single favorite (but inappropriate) scratching site, this may be temporarily protected by covering it with some netting or loosely woven fabric, since most cats do not like to snag their claws.

Encourage Safe Scratching

Giving your cat something safe to scratch will help ensure that she can "do her thing" without damaging your things. Try to choose scratching objects that are similar in texture and position (flat or upright) to the cat’s initial scratching targets. If your cat stretches up to scratch, provide something that is about the same height (cats often stretch and scratch after resting, so scratching objects near resting areas often get used). Put the object close to where you’ve seen your cat scratch, and be sure it is secure so she won’t be startled by it moving unexpectedly. Praising her profusely when you see her use it will let her know that this is hers to use. If you don’t already know how, learn how to clip your cat’s claws (it’s easy!), and do it regularly.

Providing places to climb and look out windows also is important in keeping indoor cats healthy and happy. Cats prefer to “look down” on their surroundings; it adds to their sense of safety.

Let “The Force” Be Gone

If your cat scratches or climbs on something you don’t want her to, she is showing you that you haven’t helped her understand what is and is not OK to use. One of the most important things to understand about cats is that they do not respond to force. Force is a form of social communication that more independent species like cats don’t understand. So while force may mean “stop that!” to us, a cat may feel and act as if her life is being threatened! Reprimands only work if you catch your cat "in the act." Punishment that follows an action by more than a few seconds won’t stop her from doing it again and may even cause her to be afraid of you or the surroundings. It may even cause her to try to defend herself — those teeth and claws are there for a reason!

If you do catch your cat making a mistake, rather than trying to punish her, it is better for both of you to create a distraction by making a loud noise or by throwing something (not at the cat!) that will attract her attention away from the object — but not toward you. If your cat associates the distraction as coming from you, she'll just learn to scratch when you're not around. As with all honored guests, cats do respond to praise and to distraction when they make a "mistake." As soon as your cat is distracted, you can take her to a location where her behavior is OK — and then praise her for doing it there.

Let Your Couch Do the “Talking”

One of the tricks of master cat owners is to have the cat learn that her humans are the source of all good things, and let the environment handle the negative reinforcement. This is easier than it sounds. For example, if your cat is scratching a piece of furniture, let the furniture tell the cat to stop by putting some aluminum foil or double-sided tape over the scratched area and put a scratching post nearby. Make the post irresistible by including tasty treats nearby and offering plenty of praise when the cat does what you want her to do.

Cats’ activity preferences vary, and this is yet another opportunity to establish communication with your friend. Some cats seem to prefer to be petted and groomed, whereas others may prefer play interactions with their owners. Cats also can be easily trained to perform behaviors, or “tricks” — particularly when we act on our understanding that cats respond much better to praise than to force and seem to be more amenable to learning if the behavior is shaped before feeding. Cats generally enjoy playing with toys that are small, move and that mimic prey characteristics. Many cats also prefer novelty, so provide a variety of toys, and rotate and replace them regularly to sustain the cat’s interest.

Play sessions also provide a great opportunity to teach cats to be careful and gentle, and not to bite, scratch or play-attack. Start by enticing your cat into a gentle game of play fighting, only allowing her to play using paws, not claws. Continuously praise her as long as she remains gentle. Gradually increase the excitement and intensity of the game, keeping your eyes glued to her actions. As soon as you see that she is getting too excited, or beginning to expose her claws or teeth, immediately freeze and "play dead." This usually causes cats to calm down and retract their claws. If she complies, then resume playing. If not, do not resume play until she has calmed down and retracted her claws. If she bites or scratches, sharply scream "ouch," immediately stop playing, walk away and ignore the cat until she returns to you for attention. Cats, especially kittens, love to play. Abruptly ending a play session serves as a powerful reprimand. After a few repetitions, cats quickly learn that it is their behavior that ended all the fun.

While your cat is learning not to bite and claw you, it is equally important that she be provided with something to pounce on, attack, grab with her claws and sink her teeth into so she can express her predatory telos. Unless the cat has real prey to hunt, you can provide toys that mimic prey. If one simply tosses a few toys on the floor, the cat may give them a few swats but then quickly lose interest. Better to investigate what your cat likes. Some cats seem to prefer bird-like, some bug-like and some mouse-like toys. The easiest way to learn what your cat prefers is to offer her alternatives and watch what she chooses, just as we would do for any house guest we couldn’t talk to. You can make play an interactive game with your cat by tying a toy to the end of a length of string and dragging it around the house with your cat in pouncing (predatory) pursuit. Pet stores are full of both inexpensive and exotic toys for cats, or you can use your imagination and create your own toys. The idea is to stimulate your cat's interest and participation. Two 10- to 15-minute play sessions a day (let your cat determine the duration) work wonders for venting a cat’s excess energy and fulfilling her predatory telos.

We use treats for rewards for learning and stress reduction, with “treat” meaning opportunities for voluntary exploration activity and play as well as food snacks. The enriching, stress-reducing power of activity comes from its ability to stimulate mental and physical activity by the cat, and positive interactions with us to enhance her relationship with us.

Now that we have all the essentials for basic cat care in place, we need to have a way to tell if we are reaching our goal of providing a cat-friendly home. In my next article, I’ll outline all the ways you can tell if your efforts are working.