Feline Destructive Behaviors: Keep Your Cat (and Your Home) Safe

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Clients often have problems with destructive feline behaviors and may perceive them as “revenge” or some other type of human emotion. In reality, many of the issues, such as scratching and chewing, are just parts of normal feline behavior and can be curbed when given appropriate outlets.

Scratching

[cat with scratching post]Scratching serves multiple functions for cats and is necessary for grooming the front claws and both visual and olfactory communication1, 2. Further, cats may scratch to stretch their muscles3. It is somewhat unrealistic for owners to think they can eliminate the behavior; rather, time is better spent on providing appropriate outlets as to avoid destruction to furniture and other household items.

There are a few basic things owners can do to encourage their cat not to destroy household items. First, identify the cat’s preferred surface and location for scratching. Cats tend to have a preference for substrate (carpet, couch, drapes, etc.) and for location (vertical surface, horizontal surface, a certain location of a room or area of the house). Once an owner has identified surface and location they can tailor their efforts to those things. For example, a cat that scratches on the corner of a couch along a main walkway may prefer the vertical surface in that high traffic/communication location. An owner can then focus on providing a tall scratching post made of similar material and placing it near the couch. It may take some encouragement like catnip scent or playing with toys on the scratching post initially for the pet to engage it, but once they do the owner can gradually move the post to a more desirable location.

Further, to eliminate the desire to scratch in the unacceptable location an owner may add a deterrent or block access to the location. Deterrents consist of odor neutralizers to remove the cat’s existing scent from the location or offensive odors to cats like sour apple, plastic sheets, double sided tape, or other humane aversive tactile producing devices. To reduce the normal grooming activity the nails should be trimmed on a regular basis.

Finally, punishment for this normal behavior is highly ineffective and will only serve to diminish the bond with your pet and can also lead to aggression. Unless punishment is administered each and every time the behavior occurs the animal will not learn the reason for the punishment, except for that the owner is the source and he can scratch when the owner is absent.

Chewing

While less common in cats, chewing can be a serious problem for a cat’s health as well as the objects in the environment. It is speculated that cats will chew as a comfort seeking behavior4 or that it satisfies play and investigative tendencies. Some cats simply grow out of the behavior, but others may maintain the behavior long term. Things cats tend to chew are fabrics, garments, furniture, plants, power cords, and other dangerous items.

Owners can remove the items from the environment first and foremost, but if this is not an option, such as with power cords, owners can apply a deterrent to the cord or cover the cord with a protective sheath like Chewsafe® or CritterCord®. Providing chewable toys or safe plants can give kitty an outlet to satisfy chewing tendencies. Simply providing your cat with more activity throughout the day or a more enriched environment can eliminate boredom and reduce chewing.

Health risks associated with chewing are abundant; power cords can lead to electrical shock, ingested items can create obstructions in the gastrointestinal tract, and certain plants are lethal to cats. See a complete list of toxic and non-toxic plants for cats from the ASPCA website.

Managing the environment and providing the appropriate outlets for your cat is essential to maintain harmony in a home and to nurture the human animal bond. Punishment should be avoided at all cost, as it will only lead to a weaker relationship with your cat and can initiate other problem behaviors such as aggression.

References

  1. McCune S. The impact of paternity and early socialization on the development of cat’s behaviour to people and novel objects. Appl Anim Behav Sci 1995; 45:109-124.
  2. McKeown D, Luescher UA,Machum M. The problem of destructive scratching by cats. Can Vet J 1988; 29:1017-1018.
  3. Frank D. Management problems in cats. In: BSAVA manual of canine and feline behavioural medicine. Horwitz D, Mills D, Heath S, eds. Gloucester, England: British Small Animal Veterinary Association, 2002;80-83.
  4. “College of Veterinary Medicine – Cornell University.” Destructive Behavior. Cornell Universtiy, n.d. Web. 08 Mar. 2015.

—Compiled by Michael Dow for Dr. Kelly Ballantyne’s VM 620 class