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Preventing feline scratching of inappropriate objects

Moesta A, Keys D, Crowell-Davis S. Survey of cat owners on features and preventative measures of feline scratching of inappropriate objects: a pilot study. J Feline Med Surg. 2017 Oct 1;:1098612X17733185.

Feline scratching behavior is a major cause of concern for pet owners. What is generally a normal and healthy behavior for cats can be destructive and stressful to owners and is a major cause of surrender to animal shelters. Traditionally, surgeries such as onychectomy (declawing) or less commonly tendonectomy have been used to reduce or eliminate this behavior. Modern medicine has raised many concerns regarding the ethics of these procedures due to the short and long term pain associated with them, quality of life effects on the cats, and the potential for predisposition to other adverse behaviors (ie biting or inappropriate elimination). These significant concerns have resulted in a reduction in surgical interventions and the development of new techniques to limit and redirect scratching, including providing alternative objects to scratch, pheromone therapies, and paw covers.

The purpose of this paper was to describe the nature of undesirable scratching behavior in cats and the steps owners take to reduce these behaviors.

This study was designed as an observational paper-based questionnaire distributed to a community practice clinic associated with the University of Georgia. The questionnaire contained demographic information, questions related to frequency and type of scratching behavior, and owner attempts to prevent scratching. Owners were asked about the amount of scratching, what objects were scratched (material, size, angle, etc), what steps were taken to prevent or alter scratching, and what the source of their advice was.

The survey was given to 140 people, of whom 116 returned at least partial results. The median age of cats was 3 years with an average of two cats per household. 66 cats were female and 50 male, 98 were neutered and 17 intact. 92 were indoor only, and only 16 were declawed.

The authors reported a higher rate of inappropriate scratching than some previous studies. While inappropriate scratching was common, most people reported <$100 in damage associated with this behavior. The study concluded that the most commonly scratched objects were furniture covered with fabric. While this is not surprising to many cat owners, the authors suggest that this information could be used to redirect cats towards more desirable scratching targets. Scratching pads were less commonly scratched than traditional scratching posts.

Punishment based methods were very commonly used to attempt to reduce undesirable scratching behavior. These may include yelling (69%), spraying with water (37%), or other similar techniques. These techniques had no effect in reducing the frequency of scratching. The authors, however, also failed to demonstrate any association between desirable scratching behavior and reward based training, a finding contrary to some previous studies.

The only factor found to have any association with scratching behavior was the placement of cats near an object. Placing cats in the vicinity of an object decreased the likelihood of them scratching that object (a finding likely opposite to the desired effect). This may occur because the action of picking up and moving cats is disruptive to their routine, or because the owners were attempting to make the cats scratch objects undesirable to them.

One major drawback of this study was the focal geographic area and demographic data were collected from (people attending a university associated wellness clinic). Including a wider cross section of the population from a broader geographic area may help to gain a more representative perspective of the population. The sample size of this study was also relatively small, considering the number of variables and possible confounding factors.  It is possible that larger numbers of cats and households could have teased out more statistical significance.

Overall, this study served to show that undesirable scratching is a common behavior in domestic cats, and that currently used techniques may not be effective in preventing it. Further work is needed educating owners and veterinarians on appropriate behavioral modification techniques, and further research is needed into feline scratching behavior. (MRK)

See also:

Wilson C, Bain M, DePorter T, et al. Owner observations regarding cat scratching behavior: an internet-based survey. J Feline Med Surg 2016; 18: 791–797.