One of the most important things you can do during the first few months of your kitten’s life is to teach him how to use a scratching post. When it comes to raising a happy, healthy kitten I would put this way on the top of the list–right next to getting him vaccinated–if not a little higher. 🙂
Scratching is a natural behavior for cats, and kittens are especially well known for using their claws to experience their new world. Much like little babies who like to put things in their mouth to figure out how they work, kittens often do the same thing with their claws in an attempt to test out the various types of materials in their environment. A kitten quickly learns how to use his claws to climb, defend himself, and entertain himself with toys.
While many people complain about the destructiveness of kittens, what they don’t understand is that this is the prime opportunity to teach their kitten appropriate surfaces for scratching. Like people, older cats may become more stubborn in their habits while kittens absorb new ideas like a sponge and are more inclined to use a scratching post later on in life if taught how to do so early on. People yell at the kitten for scratching the couch and climbing the curtains, but at the same time don’t give the kitten an appropriate spot to engage in these normal and natural activities. How is this fair? We give them a litterbox–why not a scratching post too? Or three? Or four? 🙂
Kittens don’t scratch because they like being destructive or are trying to be spiteful, kittens scratch because THAT’S WHAT CATS DO. For cats, scratching is as necessary as breathing. I like what Wendy Christensen says in her book, Outwitting Cats. “Get over it–scratching has nothing to do with you. Other than its communication aspects (mainly directed at other cats, not you), it’s strictly personal pampering and maintenance, like going to the gym, the manicure salon, and the therapist, all at the same time.”
Unfortunately, instead of taking the time to act responsibly and train a kitten to use a scratching post many people would rather have him declawed so they can exert their energy on more important matters (like personal pampering and maintenance–which ironically, the poor cat is no longer able to do!).
Cat scratching posts are expensive, but a nice one will probably cost you about the same amount of money as it would to have your cat declawed. Coincidence? I always tell owners that a scratching post is a long-term investment that your cat will thank you for during your many years together. You don’t have to go all out on the jungle gym models if those are out of your price range, but you want to make sure that the scratching post is tall enough for the kitten to stretch up and out to his full body length so he can really work those muscles.
Another reason why scratching posts are so important is because they allow cats to flex and strengthen their muscles which would otherwise become weak and flabby. When you watch a cat use a scratching post for any length of time you can tell it really feels good! We deny our cats that satisfaction when we chop off their toes. Even a declawed cat will continue to go through the motions of scratching. First, because it’s a natural behavior and second, because he remembers it used to feel good. People with amputated arms and legs often talk about “phantom” sensations they have for their missing limbs. I think if cats could talk they would say the same thing about their missing digits. So sad!
As soon as you bring your kitten home you should also bring home a scratching post. This is an essential item along with his food and litterbox. Your best bet at first is to go with a standard, tall scratching post or tower. Forget about those short, tiny scratching posts. I like posts to have a wide, carpeted base. First, so the post doesn’t tip over easily and second, so your cat has the option of scratching horizontally on the carpet if he wants. I usually like to push the post up against the wall or a large piece of furniture to give it a bit more security. Nothing will turn your kitten off more than a post that topples over when he climbs or jumps on it!!
If you can teach your kitten to use the scratching post even before he discovers other items in your house, you’re way ahead of the game. Like litterbox substrates, kittens develop a preference for scratching surfaces early on in life. The sooner he discovers he likes the scratching post better than your couch, the better.
Learning how to trim your kitten’s nails is also an essential skill to master because this will also aid in the amount of damage that can be done to yourself as well as your belongings. I think it’s ironic that cat nails are much easier to trim than dog nails and yet many people don’t even consider this is as an alternative to declawing. If you get your kitten used to having his nails trimmed while he’s still young that’s about the greatest gift you can ever give to yourself and your cat!
To keep things in perspective, there’s one main goal when teaching your kitten how to use a scratching post: make it more appealing than other surface in the house.
First, you should turn the scratching post into a kitten circus. Whenever you play with your kitten or see that he needs to burn off some energy do it around the scratching post. Dangle toys around the post to encourage him to jump up and climb on the post. Sprinkle the post with catnip daily until it becomes his daily magnet.
You should keep the scratching post in an area of the house where he spends the most time. Most cats like to go for a stretch and scratch after waking up after a nap, eating, or using the litterbox. The more posts you can provide him with the better. Some cats really like those corrugated scratch pads. You should pay attention early on and observe what kind of scratcher you have on your hands. Some cats prefer to scratch vertical surfaces while others like horizontal ones.
You should follow your kitten around to see if you can spot a pattern for what, where, and when he likes to scratch. That way you can be proactive and prevent problems before they start. Locating favorite scratching sites is mission critical.
If you find your cat scratching something you disapprove of, DO NOT yell, scream, scold or make a big fuss. Your cat will have no idea what the problem is because scratching is a normal, everyday activity to him. Do not hit, spit, or hiss at the cat or physically move him. Instead, distract and divert the kitten to a more acceptable alternative.
So, how to distract the kitten? I usually don’t like telling people to squirt cats with a water bottle because it’s almost impossible to do it without the cat associating the water bottle with the owner. This is only important because guess what the kitten does when he knows the owner is away? Hmmmmm . . .
Any loud noise usually works. I like the vacuum cleaner method which I learned from Dr. Theresa DePorter, a veterinarian specializing in behavior at Oakland Veterinary Referral Services. You place a vacuum cleaner near the “inappropriate” area, (let’s say the couch) and then run the cord into another room. Make sure the power to the vacuum cleaner is turned ON but don’t plug it in. Then, if you find your kitten scratching the couch all you have to do is plug it in and VOILA! you have a very distracted kitten and he has no idea you had anything to do with it!
After he runs off you should be sure to show him that the scratching post is a much happier place to scratch since there are no loud machines making scary noises. Gradually, as he learns to like your spot better you can start moving the vacuum cleaner bit by bit away from the couch and eventually back into the closet.
Another way to keep kittens from scratching furniture is to use Sticky Paws (double-sided tape is cheaper) or place small sections of rubber carpet runners upside-down in front of where the kitten has to stand to scratch. Most don’t like the way the sharp plastic points feel on their feet! One problem associated with the Sticky Paws though is that some cats like to peel it off and play with it. In this case you’re more or less reinforcing the behavior by making it even more fun and enjoyable for the cat.
Teaching your kitten how to use a scratching post does require a bit of patience. But the results are worth it in the end. Some people may feel differently, but I think part of what makes cats unique is their retractable claws. To me, claws are what makes the cat!! I don’t agree with declaw bans, because that only supports the black market. Instead, I want more education for cat owners. Declawing is too often a surgery done for convenience and for the owner’s own purposes. This is what needs to stop.