Cats and Claws by Colin Tennant

Cats & Claws!
Lilly my cat is about one hundred yards from my office window, licking her paw, perched atop a fallen oak branch – all 30 feet of it – that had, unfortunately for the farmer, fallen into the ripened corn recently. Lilly often runs across to this huge branch, dashes up and along its bough then frantically claws the roughened bark. She practices this little routine several times daily and truly looks pleased with her performance. She is a happy cat – partly living in her natural world.

Living with cats not only brings with it numerous pleasures, it can also bring some problems such house training and clambering on surfaces you preferred they didn’t. Once you have successfully trained your cat not to toilet on the floor or in any other part of your home, you may think that all the fuss and bother you went through is finally over. The bad news is that it is probably not. As cats grow they develop their natural skills and tactics for survival in the wild. Cats are still only semi-domesticated creatures and as such still have their natural instincts very much intact, unlike the state of some furniture in many homes!

The house or flat is just another version of the outside world to a cat. Curtain rails, tops of sofa backs, carpets and even hessian wallpaper are just interesting architectural features that need investigation to a cat, as in its outside arboreal wonderland. While such clawing behaviour would in the wild help to ensure the cat’s survival, in the home it can create great distress for the cat’s owners. Sofas are expensive and the cat, unfortunately for us, is not aware of this fact. The good news, however, is that although deeply ingrained, most common cat behavioural ‘problems’ can be redirected (or altered) into less damaging behaviour.

Scratching can be one of the most costly of behaviours your cat will exhibit. Far from being just an irritating habit or an act of spite, scratching is actually a vital behaviour that helps satiate three basic needs of your cat:

  1. To keep it’s claws sharp and clean;
  2. Stretch and exercise it’s muscles;
  3. Distribute it’s scent, it’s I.D. (Cats have scent glands in the pads of their front paws).

In the wild a cat would use a tree or other similar object like Libby does, but in the home there aren’t usually many trees to hand so other, less suitable objects are used – like the back of your sofa! Scratching, unfortunately, cannot be stopped, no more than humans can stop their own natural behaviour like crying, laughing or scratching. What you need to do, therefore, is provide a suitable object for her to scratch. So here is my first suggestion: purchase a scratching post. This can either be bought from a pet shop ready made or you can construct your own by using wood and rope.

Once you have your brand new scratching post set up in your living room (or wherever you keep it) your cat will probably give it the obligatory sniff and scent mark it, then simply walk away in total ignorance of all of your efforts. Now you need to teach her what it’s for. This may sound strange, but what that consists of is demonstration. Without hurting your cat hold her paws firmly, then scratch them down the post yourself. When she finally does this for herself reward her with praise and maybe a food treat. You can also try rubbing some cat nip into the post or placing the post near/next to an area that the cat is already scratching, say the end of the sofa (a favourite spot for many cats). By doing this your cat will soon learn to associate this action (and pleasure) with the post and, coupled with her strong drive to scratch in the first place, should result in it using the post instead of your furniture. In addition, one or two food treats can be pressed into the post fabric to encourage more interest and therefore more use of it. It is also worth noting that sometimes a couple of scratching posts do the trick better than just one.

Where more than one cat is kept in the same house you may find that the more dominant cat will refuse to use the post, preferring instead to use your home. In these cases the best method to use is the water pistol. Quite simply this involves squirting a jet of clean, fresh water at the cat only whilst she is scratching the wrong thing. This will give her a mild shock, enough to stop her from scratching and if repeated often and accurately (timing wise) enough the unpleasantness should become associated with, not the scratching action, but the location. I call this location the “no go area”. One very important point to bear in mind here is that your cat must not associate you with the unpleasantness, because this can lead to a lack of trust in you, so always try to keep yourself out of view when squirting her. Then simply pretend that you have no idea what is going on and it’s the cat’s business not yours.

Houseplants: Digging Them Up or Eating
It is wonderful the way that cats seem to believe that they can re-pot our houseplants better than us. Re-arranging the foliage can be another time passing interest for the cat. Strangely enough, cats don’t seem to understand that we don’t like soil spread over the floor, nor do we like dozens of half chewed leaves dangling like limp hurricane victims. Equally, cats sometimes eat plants and again this is a distorted instinctive behaviour. Cats in the wild will munch away on various safe plants and do obtain various vitamin compounds, which help with their nutritional needs, moreover, it helps to remove the fur balls that they accumulate from their prolific grooming sessions. Many houseplants are in fact poisonous, but that I will leave for another article.

My friend’s cat, Tiger, is very adept at destroying potted plants in the house. She does, however, rarely touch the garden plants (although this may be more difficult to discern in a well planted garden). Generally, houseplants are meant to be pleasing for us and I believe it is the human’s way of bringing a little piece of the outside world into our home. It is comforting and pleasing to the eye. Its also comforting and pleasing for the cat who no longer has to make the effort to pop outside for a chew or scratch – we’ve saved him the leg work. Now if that’s not kindness from the cat’s point of view I don’t know what is!

What we have here is a conflict of interests and somehow the cat has to learn that there are some things that are simply not acceptable; this can be done by making her realise that certain actions can have unpleasant consequences and is the basis of the ‘operation’ to save the plants.

In the wild a cat learns by trial and error – if she were to pop her nose in the wrong hole and bugs or bees were to appear and sting her, her drive to survive would associate that action or place with the unpleasantness and the chance of repeating the same action in the same place in the future would be less. In the home we need to create a natural teaching deterrent. Mothballs spread about the base of a plant do nicely, because cats find the smell rather foul. Several companies produce Bitter Bite, which when sprayed on the low plant leaves (check for compatibility), makes the experience of chewing the leaves less enjoyable to say the least. You will need to offer some alternatives of course; cat ropes, toys and the like are plentiful on the pet shop shelves. The ubiquitous water pistol can be used again, but when you’re not present it is rather useless, because cats will only learn by an immediate association. Cats dislike strange crinkly uneven surfaces so tinfoil sheets crinkled on the floor underneath the plant is another harmless deterrent for the cat.

As mentioned earlier redirecting unwanted behaviour is a safe and non-stressful way of preventing plant tasting sessions, so you may like to provide your cat with a small indoor pot of seedlings of her own to nibble on. Again, pet shops often sell these in convenient containers, or you can simply dig up a small clump of lawn, which has not been treated with any garden chemicals and place it on a tray daily or once or twice week for her to chew. For the very determined cat or the cat that ignores all manner of persuasion then the “Aboi Master Plus” from “The Company of Animals” does work wonders. This device emits a 2 second spray of harmless citronella from a little plastic box, up to about 50 yards from you the operator (it is operated by a small remote control device). When the cat attempts to bite a leaf or dig the soil out of a plant pot you can trigger the collar remotely so that the cat receives an unpleasant spray of citronella. I do believe the sound of the spray working has just as good an effect in deterring the cat from that area as the citronella does; of course, if you have many houseplants spread about the home this system is not so practical. It is important to note, however, that this product must never be used with a sensitive or neurotic cat as it can create much more serious problems than it will solve.

All in all cats are creatures of their evolution and that includes, like all other pets, behaviours that don’t always suit our view of the world. Try to remember that whether you own a cat, dog or any other pet, the key to solving any behaviour problem is to understand what the species is designed for in it’s wild state. Understanding your pet and being very patient is the way to alter it’s behaviour without a divorce.

Lilly my cat still brings an endless supply of dead rodents into my home each week. A mangled vole placed inside my shoe is not my idea of a present, but it is Lilliy’s, and that’s the point.

This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Colin Tennant for the CFBA.