For decades, cat owners have elected to surgically declaw their felines, to prevent unwanted scratching and clawing. But, as our understanding of feline medicine and behavior has grown, the veterinary viewpoint on declawing cats has shifted. Declawing is an extreme—and potentially damaging—response to a behavior issue that is easily remedied with training, environmental design, and resource management. 

While scratching on your furniture and walls seems like a nuisance, this is actually a healthy and normal feline behavior. By understanding the purpose and benefit of scratching, and the possible indications for inappropriate scratching, you can see your cat’s habits as a response to their surroundings, rather than a destructive or spiteful act.

Why do cats scratch?

When a cat scratches an object, we see only that they are sinking their sharp, hooked nails in their desired vertical or horizontal surface. However, a closer look tells us that scratching goes beyond the surface by:

  • Removing the outer nail covering, allowing the nail to stay sharp and healthy
  • Stretching the body from toes to tail, improving blood flow to the extremities, and warming muscles
  • Maintaining reliable extension and retraction of the nail, which allows grip and dexterity for climbing and hunting
  • Applying scent and visual markers or messages, to communicate with other cats and claim territory
  • Creating positive emotions—scratching feels good to cats, similar to a person’s slow stretch

Unfortunately, cats don’t always head to the scratching post to satisfy these needs. So, what makes a cat select your sofa over sisal or sandpaper? A few common reasons include:

  • Stress and anxiety — Cats scratch during emotional conflict or uncertainty caused by:
  • Resource access or quantity — Insufficient or inaccessible food, water, or litter boxes can trigger anxiety.
  • Bullying — Other household pets can create tension, or control access to vital resources.
  • Perceived threats — Real or false threats to your cat’s sense of security, such as:
  • Outdoor cats — Cats may scratch to mark areas near windows or doors, where they see stray or neighborhood cats.
  • Household changes — Altered daily routines, sleep schedules, or a family member absence
  • Attention-seeking — Cats may use scratching to address:
  • Boredom — Indoor-only cats may lack mental stimulation.
  • Isolation — Unmet social needs can create stress and anxiety.

The cat’s sensitive nature can make understanding the motives behind inappropriate scratching a challenge. Our veterinarians can assess your cat’s behavior history and physical health to determine a cause, and develop a specific treatment plan. (See Alternatives to the feline declaw.)

What happens during a feline declaw surgery?

Because of the cat’s unique retractable claw, declawing is more complicated than simply detaching the nail from the toe. Onychectomy (i.e., a declaw) is a surgical amputation of the third phalanx of each digit—the equivalent of removing each finger at the first knuckle. Incorrectly performed declaw procedures can leave cats with short and long-term side effects, such as debilitating chronic pain and behavior issues. For more details on declaw surgery and its complications, visit our previous declaw post.

Is declaw surgery ever an appropriate choice for cats?

A medical declaw may be advised for cats with traumatic injury, infection, or tumor formation. In rare circumstances, declawing may be recommended for irreparable behavior issues, but this is a worst-case scenario, and would be considered only after all other options have failed, and risks have been reviewed.

Alternatives to the feline declaw

Living peacefully with a clawed cat is possible, but requires acceptance and accommodation of your cat’s natural needs. Here are a few healthy, furniture-sparing ways to channel your cat’s scratching:

  • Keep claws trimmed — Keeping your cat’s nails short will reduce their need to scratch. Nail trimming can be intimidating at first, so schedule a demonstration at Somerset Animal Hospital before trying it at home. We can help you learn how and where to trim the nail, while keeping your cat comfortable. 
  • Scratching posts — Show your cat where you want them to scratch by providing several options, such as scratching posts, mats, or ramps. Place scratchers near your cat’s sleeping areas, so they can stretch and scratch when they wake, and near active areas, such as near windows, where the need to scratch may be inspired by play.
  • FeliscratchFeliscratch mimics the natural scent “messages” that scratching leaves behind, and will encourage appropriate scratching when applied to posts and mats. Feliscratch is a safe, drug-free, and clinically effective way to eliminate inappropriate behavior by “telling” your cat where to scratch in a language they understand.
  • Nail caps Soft nail covers are a temporary solution for some cats, but must be applied every four to six weeks, as the nail grows and sheds.
  • Resource management — Ensure your cat has ready access to food, water, litter boxes, perches, toys, and hiding places. Separate pets for feeding, and provide a litter box for each cat, plus one, to reduce bullying.
  • Enrichment — Provide regular opportunities for personal interaction, such as petting, snuggling, and play. Encourage natural cat behavior by introducing perches, hiding places, and puzzle toys that simulate hunting and foraging.

If your cat’s scratching is driving you up a wall, know your options. Somerset Animal Hospital can provide “claw counseling” to determine and eliminate potential inappropriate scratching causes, and create an individualized treatment plan that doesn’t require painful and unnecessary amputation. To schedule your cat’s examination, or a nail trim demonstration, contact Somerset Animal Hospital.