Cats and Claws

Why cats use their claws, and ideas on how to deal!

Human relationships with cats harken back more than 9500 years ago. This theory was reinforced when an archeological dig in Cyprus discovered a cat purposely buried with a human in a tomb circa 7500 BC.

A study published in Science magazine concluded that based on the genetic analysis it was likely that the domestic cat descended from a Middle Eastern wildcat Felis Sylvestris perhaps as long ago as 12,000 years ago. At that time agrarian, or farming, societies were just forming and they may have welcomed having a cat around that could do away with rodents that were eating the stores of wheat and barley grain. The wild cats may have started to stay close to a readily available food source near the farms. It is theorized that the friendlier scavenger cats were favored by humans and thus were selected for in succeeding generations.

By about 1900 BC cats were domesticated and they appear on ancient tombs. Ancient Egyptians worshipped cats. Killing a cat could result in a death sentence in Egypt 5000 years ago. Some of the Egyptian deities are depicted as cats.

As a cat owner and veterinarian, I can relate to views of the cat as an object of awe and fear. Their beauty, aristocratic carriage and independence invite worship. The repose of a domestic cat, such as our Tippy at the hospital, basking in a sunspot is the vision of beauty and calm. The sight brings calm to those who witness it.

I experienced awe and fear of cats at a young age when I had no pets of my own. On a visit to my paternal grandmother’s home, I met Anton, a Siamese cat. He was not at all used to children. I yearned to pat him and get him to understand I loved cats. Anton regarded me suspiciously from a high shelf in the coatroom. He avoided my approaches numerous times. One night at bedtime I found he was in my room, so I shut the door thinking he might settle down on my bed and get used to me. I shut off the lights. Immediately I became aware of this athletic feline rocketing off all four walls and the ceiling in rapid succession. To a six-year-old, this was a pretty terrifying experience. I quickly opened the door 4 inches and he shot out of the room like a cannonball. After that, I would only appreciate Anton from a distance.

Cats use their claws for many purposes. They use them to climb trees or furniture. When they jump to a high surface they use them when they land to grasp the surface. Claws are used to knead soft surfaces, people or other cats for comfort. Claws are also used to hunt prey and for self-defense. Cats sharpen their claws by kneading surfaces such as tightly woven rugs or wood in order to shed the old claw-shaped sheath and reveal the sharper claw beneath.

Indoor cats may use their claws on furniture, bed box springs or wood surfaces in your home if you do not provide a scratching area. Ideally, the scratching area is provided while your cat is a kitten and forming its habits. The scratching area should include a tightly woven rug and stable, preferably large sisal covered scratching post. Most cats do not favor sisal-scratching boards that hang on a doorknob because they are unstable. A vertical pine board nailed into a wall is great because cats like to stretch vertically when exercising their claws and paws. Our cat scratches a pine board that supports the hand railing at the base of the basement stairs. Some cats really like the horizontal cardboard scratching areas. The idea is for your cat to have a choice of multiple surfaces.

Even if your cat is an adult it can be trained to use the scratching area rather than your furniture. Positive reinforcement works best so don’t shake cans of coins or spray with water when they are destroying your furniture. Remove the cat gently from the area. Cover up the preferred spot with tin foil or heavy plastic and make the scratching area a better place to be! Praise your cat with the word “good” and immediately offer a treat when the area is approached. Offer a special treat that your cat adores and offer only when your cat approaches the area. Offer the “good”/treat combo each time kitty gets closer to the area. It may take a month or two of five-minute training sessions to train your cat to the scratching area and away from the good furniture. You can also purchase cat pheromones in a plugin form or spray form that will attract your cat to the area. Feliway is one brand name.

Finally, declawing was a routine method to remove cats’ claws 30 years ago. It is now considered quite a cruel and painful procedure because the claw is removed with the last knuckle of the accompanying digit. Some veterinarians refuse to perform these procedures while others will do them rarely so that if a client insists it is at least done properly by a licensed veterinarian with proper pain control during and after the procedure.

With a little effort in establishing your cat’s special scratching area and some training, you can save your furniture and have a great relationship with your cat. If your cat does not want a “relationship” then at least you can co-exist in peace

Soft Paws or Soft Claw plastic claw covers are a wonderful invention that helped make the declaw procedure a rarity. They are plastic claw sheaths that can be glued to a cat’s claw after a nail trim. The plastic claw is blunt so fabric and furniture aren’t ruined. The plastic claws do shed every six to eight weeks so they need to be reapplied.