The ins and outs of scratching

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Cats scratch. It's the nature of the beast. When a cat reaches all the way out, sinks in his claws and lets 'er rip, he's doing something essential to being a cat. Fortunately, it need not spell doom for the new Flexsteel sofa.

Tiger is "sharpening his claws," as we humans say, for three reasons. Most obvious is that he is keeping those claws in shape to use as his primary means of defense and escape. Cats' claws don't grow as ours do, getting incrementally longer day by day. They grow from inside, where a sharp and shiny new nail develops. Then the old outer nail, dulled by use, dries up and falls away. Scratching helps the cat cast off the old nail.

He also is marking his territory. That's why Tiger picks on your favorite chair or the sofa that is in the center of family life. Cats have scent glands in their paws, and marking lets other cats know that his person and household already have been claimed. You'd prefer that he mark the perimeter with urine, as many other species do?

In addition, he is doing the cat's rendition of the yogi's Salute to the Sun. Every time he wakes up from a good nap, he needs to stretch out the kinks in that incredibly flexible spine. Cats have 30 vertebrae, five more than people do, and there's extra padding in between. That lets the cat stretch out an extra 14 percent of his body length and helps let him do the 180-degree twist at the waist that lands him on his feet.

So scratching is a basic need, fortunately one you can redirect to an appropriate place. It's easiest to do when you bring a cat or kitten into a new environment. But yes, you can teach an old cat new tricks.

Cats in the wild scratch on tree bark and domestic cats prefer a rough surface similar to that. Sisal rope wrapped around a post is great. You can buy it by the yard in local marine and building materials stores. Scraps of carpeting aren't the best choice as they suggest it's OK to scratch the matching carpeting on the floor. When using carpeting for scratching, turn it upside down so the rough backing is facing out. Then add the coup de grace by scenting the designated scratch pad with catnip. I like the kind that comes in a squirt bottle or spray can, easy to use to freshen the appeal.

Unfortunately, most scratching posts sold in stores are too short for a full-grown cat. Measuring Tiger when he is fully extended may prove challenging. Blind, dumb luck and a carpenter friend gave me a scratching post that has proven popular with a succession of cats. It's made of a scrap of 4x4, 24 inches high, screwed into a plywood base 18 inches square. That big a base gives the post stability, another critical requirement.

Some cats prefer to do their stretching horizontally. For them, an easy answer is the inexpensive flat box sold in pet stores. The box has a corrugated cardboard insert that presents an attractive surface for scratching and can be replaced when it's worn out.

Cat furniture, which consists of posts with perches and sleeping spots, also serves as a scratching post. The larger the posts' diameter, the longer they will last before they need recovering.

Tiger won't use the new device unless it is placed near the spot where he likes to nap. Remember that each time he wakes up, the first thing on his agenda will be digging in his claws for a full-body stretch. Also, he won't use a scratching spot that's too far away from the center of activity in your house, as he's marking the heart of his home ground.

Start by putting a scratching post near the couch or other site he is using now. The catnip will lure him away from the couch. Praise and pet him when he scratches the post. When he is using it regularly, gradually move the post from center stage to a nearby place that is acceptable to both of you.

The couch will soon be abandoned except when he digs into it to get your attention or just to jerk your chain. After all, he's a cat.

• Linda Daniel has spent her life in the company of cats, most of whom simply showed up at her door. She volunteers at the Gastineau Humane Society.

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