Humane Society of Central Illinois

Pause For Claws

By John C. Cargill, MA, MBA, MS

Seeing Shred

Whereas dog people pay the price of chewed table legs, cat people tend to live in houses of shreds: shreds of this, shreds of that, but if the cat is so inclined, shreds of furniture, upholstery and drapes, and bedspreads, especially those bedspreads with tassels.

Less tongue in cheek, the cat owner is faced with a very real problem, which can be boiled down to this: we want cats to scratch where we want them to scratch, and not where they might want to scratch.

In my lifetime, I've had only six permanent cats and a couple of litters. My method of minimizing furniture and drapery damage is comprised of three parts: prevention, carrot and stick. Animals in my house are guests, albeit, the cats seem to be permanent house guests. Prevention of behavior problems typically is better than cure, and especially so in light of the potential destruction to home and hearth.

So, given a new cat, how do you begin this process of prevention? Behaviorists tell us that every animal has an emotional need for "space" it controls as its own territory. Crates are useful for this. The crate becomes a secure zone from which the cat may escape the pressures of life, such as small children. other pets and unwanted attention from visitors if the cat is shy. I'm convinced a personal crate is a major contributor to the health, safety and happiness of the well-traveled cat. I've traveled around the country with a cat. The cat in question enjoyed it, considering the Toyota Landcruiser an extension of its crate.

You can make your house a comfort zone by following these steps:

Step 1. Get a crate and use it.

During the training period, only let the cat out while supervised. This is one area of prevention you won't regret.

Step 2. Provide opportunities to scratch.

Cats have claws that grow. They're covered with an outer sheathing that needs to be rubbed or pulled away from the claw. When a cat gets to sink its claws into something that rubs the sheathing from the claw, it feels good. When the cat doesn't scratch, it's claws itch, and feel bad. Think of the process of scratching like manicuring your own nails. There needs to be something hard against which you can abrade the nail, or file it down; something softer to shape the nail; something fine against which you can polish the nail; and finally, you need a tool to push the cuticle back. One nail instrument doesn't do all of this. How can we expect one scratching surface to meet all needs? Here's where you need a good "carrot."

Most people find a special place in the house to do their nails. Cats, like humans, are creatures of habit. Provide your cat with a favorite place to scratch. You may have to try several places before you find an acceptable one. I've found it effective to have three different types of scratching post: a tree trunk with deep bark and grooves between the bark: a fairly dense material like carpet or sisal: and a material that shreds easily. It's effective to have these posts in the room where the cat usually sleeps. There's nothing quite so satisfying to a cat as to wake up to a good stretch while hanging on to a tall, stable scratching post, followed by a good scratch on the surface of its desire at that moment. The rest of the day goes well after such a ritual. My cats tell me that it beats waking up to coffee on an automatic timer. Note: Catnip never hurts a good scratching post. Some cats believe it actually increases the benefits derived from scratching.

Step 3. Reduce the perceived need to scratch.

Keeping nails well trimmed on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, depending on the rate of growth, goes a long way toward reducing the amount of scratching. Remember to blunt the ends of the nails so they don't catch in upholstery or fabric.

Step 4. Dissuade opportunistic scratching.

Some owners swear by the technique of wiping their hands under their armpits and scratching the post to transfer their scent. Because cats have scent glands in their feet, they use the scent to mark their territory while scratching. I owned one cat that would scratch wherever I scratched, thus leaving his scent over mine. Others weren't so obliging.

The "stick" comes in several forms, including the peashooter. Two of the six cats I've had needed to be reminded a number of times with the peashooter that the couch wasn't a scratching post. The others caught on more quickly.

Another commonly recommended "stick" is the water pistol. However, I find cats quickly learn to stay out of range with the result that the water lands on the carpet, to the delight of a dry cat, believing it has invented a new game.

Rebel Without A Claw

If the previous training methods don't work, it may be necessary to get rid of the cat or to take a mechanical or surgical approach.

While some cat fanciers decry declawing, other swear by it. I'm opposed to the automatic declawing of cats. First, it is mutilation; second, it's expensive; and third, I like to see cats hang their claws in a scratching post and stretch. They seem to get so much out of it. If the cat is an outside cat, it's also left relatively defenseless from dogs and other cats. If, on the other hand, I haven't been able to quickly discourage a cat from scratching, the claws or the cat has to go.

Fever Pitch

One other consideration remains: that of Cat Scratch Disease (CSD), also known as Cat Scratch Fever and Cat Scratch Syndrome. This human disease, first described by Henri Parinaud in 1889, is caused by the afipia felis bacterium and vectored through cat scratches. Symptoms include swollen glands and lymph nodes, fatigue, headache, loss of appetite and vomiting.

The disease is generally self-limiting and regresses spontaneously in three months or so; however, lymph nodes may remain enlarged for up to two years. In severe cases, such as those seen in HIV-positive and immunosuppressed people, and in cancer chemotherapy or long-term steroid treatment patients, there may be complications involving the central nervous system (convulsions and coma) and the eyes (conjunctivitis).

There are some 22,000 reported/estimated cases of cat scratch disease in the United Stated each year. Many of these involve children and kittens. It's reasonable to believe the number of cases of cat scratch disease would be greatly reduced if house cats were routinely declawed. Some pediatricians with experience in treating CSD may recommend widespread declawing out of concern for their patients.

On the other hand, various animal rights groups and humane societies protest most vociferously that widespread declawing would be outright animal cruelty and not justifiable under the circumstances. On balance, most cat owners should be willing to take the time to train and work with their cats to avoid surgical options.