For Sale: Expensive Chippendale-style sofa. Light scratches on woodwork and some runs in fabric, but otherwise in excellent condition.
Wanted: New home for cuddly cat. Lovely temperament, will do well in home with small children.
Furniture scratching is probably no.1 on the list of complaints of householders with cats. No-one wants their sofas, chars or doors shredded to bits. Unfortunately, like spraying, scratching is a basic instinct with our feline friends. Teaching cats not to scratch is virtually impossible, since it involves countermanding a basic territorial imperative that is hardwired into the cat's brain. What we can do is direct the cat's claws away from the furniture and into a designated object - e.g a scratch post.
Before going into details it is important to understand why cats scratch. There are two main reasons: scent marking and claw trimming. Scratching, as distressed furniture owners often observe, leaves highly visible marks. However, it also leaves a signal undetectable to humans in the form of scent markings from secretions from glands in the cat's feet. Feral cats choose tree bark, wooden posts or wooden fences to tell other cats that this area is occupied. An indoor cat is just as keen as a feral cat to show outsiders that this is *her* home, and so will make this statement on a prominent vertical surface (for example, if no alternative is provided, a table leg will do nicely). Because of the scent-marking left by the scratching ceremony, the cat will come back time and time again to reinforce the mark. Once a pattern is established it is not easy to break it.
The second reason for furniture scratching is more simple. It is basic claw maintenance. Scratching does not actually sharpen the claws, but cats constantly grow new claws, rather as humans grow fingernails, and scratching removes the outer casing of the old claws to expose the new sharp tips. You can often see the old outer layer of the claw near a scratch post, or impale a bare foot on it on your way to the sofa.
As the doctors say, prevention is better than cure, and a pre-emptive strike is definitely better than the cat slowly scratching your furniture to firewood. So even before you get a cat, make sure you get a scratch post or mat. If the cat does not instinctively choose to scratch the post (scratching posts are designed to trigger the 'scratch here' instinct), direct the cat's attention to it. Put the scratch post in a prominent place near the middle of the room. Scratch the post gently with your fingers as a gentle hint. When we brought our cat home I encouraged her to run to the scratch post and scratch vigorously as a pre-feeding ritual. The same was true when she came back from outside. So now she comes in from the garden, vigorously scratches her post and hurries to investigate the food bowl. This was has certainly worked for our cat, who leaves the furniture intact but has also developed the habit of ripping into the doormat as a sign that she wants to be let out.
Prevention is one thing, but what if the problem already exists? If the cats scratch a number of areas in the house, especially around the access points (i.e.. doors and opened ground floor windows) then it is very likely they are marking out their territory. Usually the focus of the attack is the door/window frame or nearby furniture. This type of scratching needs to be treated the same way as spraying (which is also a way of marking territory). First and most important, you need to find what is making your cat insecure and try to eliminate it. So cleaning off the markings and making the home more secure (from a feline point of view) should go hand in hand. Suitable alternatives can also help a great deal. A rough door mat may be sufficient to eliminate door scratching. An alternative vertical post such as a strategically placed large piece of bark or vertical scratch post may also save the surrounding furniture.
If the cat chooses to maul a particular piece of furniture, for example a sofa in the middle of the room, but leaves the rest of the furniture intact, then probably not insecurity but claw maintenance is the root problem. Put a good scratch post in front of the chosen sofa and see if this solves the problem. However, that hidden scent signal needs to be removed, so you might have to temporarily move the sofa. Clean the sofa in the scratched area, and during the transitional period cover the target zone with a protective material, for example thick plastic which cats do not like. Once the cat starts scratching her post you can start moving it, but ever so slowly (a few inches a day) to somewhere more suitable. Once you and the cat are happy with the post's new location move the sofa back. Wash the scratched part of the sofa carefully to remove any remaining scent before taking the cover off. If getting a cat from someone else's home it is an excellent idea to make sure the scratch post/mat comes too.
Never try solving any behaviour problems by punishing the cats. You might feel better, but that is all that it will achieve. Your cat will associate the punishment with you rather than with the scratching, and might even become insecure and scratch more vigorously. As a result you might end up with a cat which scratches both the sofa and you. Also, de-clawing is not, generally speaking, an acceptable option. Not only is this cruel to the cat - and illegal in some places - but can cause psychological problems which might mean that you have expensively exchanged a scratching problem for a spraying one. Persuasion is the key.