Cats instinct to scratch helps them spread their scent, maintain healthy nails, and get some good stretching in, but many cat owners become frustrated when furniture, curtains, and carpet become favorite scratching stations.
During this Zoom call, Indiana small animal veterinarian Dr. Leslie Brooks discusses the scratching behavior of cats, along with the growing debate over declawing.
Fostering and behavioral specialist Liz Italia co-hosted the call, and after a question and answer session on scratching, recounted her rough few days dealing with some medical issues surrounding her cats.
Recorded: September 21st, 2020.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this call are those of the guest(s) and/or host(s) and may or may not reflect the views or opinions of My Lovely Feline.
Scratching is part of the normal behavior in cats. It releases tension and helps shed dead parts of claws. Cat owners encounter conflict when cats turn to human objects to scratch.
Remember, to a cat, furniture, curtains, and carpet are just part of their environment – they don’t have any way of knowing that they are treasured belongings to us, unless we take time to teach them to scratch something more appropriate (like a scratching post). Cats are scratching because it’s part of their instinct.
There are a number of different options to deal with scratching, and it is really up to your personal preference. One is to transition your indoor cats to outdoor. You must take into account where you live and the risks associated with it.
Dr. Brooks decided that was what worked for her, but stressed that it will not work for everyone. Another option is to work on training your cat to scratch acceptable objects, and the younger you teach them, the better.
One thing that’s very important is to trim your cat’s nails about once every two weeks. This will help them with nail health, and also lessen the damage done to items they scratch. Also keep in mind, once one cat starts scratching the appropriate item, other cats will want to add their scent and likely follow suit without much training.
- Purchase multiple scratching posts, horizontal and vertical
- Make sure the posts ar sturdy and tall enough for the size of your cat
- Place scratchers where the activity happens in the house, because it tends to be a social activity
- Put the scratcher in front of the item they’re inappropriately scratching
- Rub catnip and feed treats or wet food at the scratcher
- Double-sided tape
- Furniture protectors
- Cat deterrent spray (no-scratch spray)
- Nail caps on cat’s nails
The Declawing Debate
Dr. Brooks talked about her experiences. Early in her career, it was part of the culture at the clinic where she worked; it was in the kitten’s spay or neuter package. After a year, Dr. Brooks stood up for herself and said she wouldn’t preform declawing surgeries anymore.
She saw plenty of cats do fine, but she saw some develop arthritis, have behavioral changes, and even start biting. Cats that don’t have their claws are more likely to bite, and cat bites are much worse than a cat scratch, almost always getting infected.
These cats also tend to urinate outside the litter box, which causes them to end up in shelters. It’s unknown if urinating outside the box is due to paw pain, back pain or something else. These cats also get more arthritis because they must change their gait and stance since the weight is distributed differently without the claws (and bone attached to them).
If the only way to prevent euthanasia or a cat going to a shelter is to declaw, Dr. Brooks said she would recommend going to a clinic that performs the laser declaw. The process allows for faster healing and less complications than other methods. Those clinics often do the procedures to correct declaws that were done incorrectly.
Although not all declawed cats have issues, Liz referred to a recent study which showed there is a clear connection between declawing and inappropriate elimination (especially urination), back and paw pain, aggression, biting, and overgrooming.
Liz compared declawing to smoking: Not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, but we know smoking causes lung cancer. Not every declawed cat will have issues, but declawing a cat increases the likelihood that there will be problems.
My cats wants to scratch and bite me, almost as a sign of affection. Is that possible?
Dr. Brooks: I think she’s playing with you.
Liz: She’s treating you like a cat. They look at us like mothers or siblings.
Dr. Brooks: How can you stop that?
Liz: One of the things I do for cats like this is use a small toy, and if they try to nip or swat, I say, “Toy,” put it in front of them, repeating this until they paw at it or start biting it. You need to repeatedly do this so you can teach them. Overall, if you see them prepping to bite or swat, try to immediately distract them with a toy.
If you have a single cat, getting a younger cat or kitten for them to play with will help. A lot of these cats that do this didn’t have littermates for the appropriate amount of time, so they never learned the right way to play. I like the kicker toys too, so if they try to go for you, replace your hand with a kicker for them to rabbit foot it.
If your cat is being declawed, do you know what the post-op care is?
Dr. Brooks: The specifics might vary depending on the clinic, but generally, they’ll give them pain medicine before going under anesthesia. They’ll send them home with two different forms of pain medicine for 3-5 days; one is an anti-inflammatory called Onsior and the other is a pain medicine called buprenorphine. They may or may not send them home with antibiotics. Most clinics will wrap their paws and keep them overnight, unwrapping their paws in the morning. Once home, if the cat jumps around too much or chews at the claws, they’ll need to have the wraps put back on. They’ll also be sent home with Yesterday’s News, a special litter that looks like little pieces of newspaper, to use for at least seven days.
I have two 12-week-old kittens, but they’re tearing up things. I hate the thought of declawing them, but don’t know what to do.
Dr. Brooks: Of course they’re playful kittens. If it’s possible for you to put away the super expensive furniture for a few months, and then bring it out when they are less rambunctious, that might work. Or if you can shut the doors to that room, that could work.
Sue (customer): We’ve never declawed our cats because we’re against it. Things that we’ve tried arae covering things with blankets, putting away stuff we don’t want them to knock over, and we’ve propped up big branches from outside and they like to scratch those.
Liz: And when they’re 12 weeks old they’re crazy. It’s not indicative of how they’ll be long term.
Dr. Brooks: With your situation, we do tell people to do it when they’re young, but on the flipside, they do grow out of it. If you declaw them now, who knows, in a few months, they could be calmer and then they’re declawed for no reason.
Liz: Just keep in mind you could be exchanging one problem for another. They can grow out of this energy, but they can’t grow out of not using the box or being aggressive after a declaw.
I appreciate everything both of you shared. It’s a hard decision, but you’ve given me more things to think about.
Liz’s Kitty Drama
Liz explained how on a Friday, she put new litter in a box and put her male into it. He postured to go to the bathroom, but nothing came out. Her heart sunk into her stomach. She thought about Dr. Brooks’ former Zoom calls on blockages, so she took right to the ER, and they informed her he was completely blocked. To treat him would require a sedation to put a catheter in for 48 hours.
They’d then remove it and if he peed on his own he could go home. The estimate was $1,500-2,000, and while she was shocked and didn’t want to do it, there is no other treatment for the blockage. Without care or being able to pee, toxins would build in his system and he would die, so, as she said, of course she was going to have him treated.
The vet called after the procedure to inform her that they removed a mucus plug that was likely due to crystals. The good news was the vet could tell based on the color and amount of the urine that the blockage had just happened, so Liz caught it early.
His bloodwork was also perfect, so his kidneys were okay. He would need to be on a prescription diet moving forward to dissolve the crystals and hopefully prevent a reblock.
The next day, Saturday, she walked into the kitchen and saw little puddles that looked like coffee on the floor. Vito, her super senior, had pee mixed into his blood. She took him to the vet immediately and he got antibiotics for a urinary tract infection (UTI), and brought him home. He was doing better.
Then, on Sunday, she brought Beaker home from the hospital. That night he was in a lot of discomfort, and was acting like he had a UTI from the catheter removal. He was straining, so she was worried he was blocked again, but a few droplets of pee came out, indicating he wasn’t. She double checked with the hospital and they explained this behavior was common.
On Monday, she took her foster cat Rigsby in for a dental, expecting only a few teeth needing to be pulled – but she ended up needing a full mouth extraction. All of her teeth were removed. At the time of the call, Rigsby was resting comfortable and had plenty of pain medicine.
Because of the major issues she had below the gumline (which showed on the X-ray), she was likely in a lot of pain before, and was now a step closer to a pain-free life. Liz explained how it was a crazy few days.
My cat held his bladder when I changed the litter. Is that normal?
Liz: They can be finicky. Look at the litter container and follow the guidelines for transitioning to the new litter. They usually recommend half of the old, half of the new, or even less.
My 15-year-old cat was traumatized when she was younger, and has since reverted to behaviors she had when she was younger. Any advice on how to help her?
Liz: Just like an older person, who has a routine and certain way of thinking or acting, it’s difficult to change the habits and behavior patterns of an older cat. You can try to keep her in a calm, quiet area.
Don’t open windows. Amazon and Pandora have great meditation and relaxation music stations, so you can play that. You can also just sit with her, not really interacting, but just being there. It can put lots of pressure on the cat if you’re trying to comfort or touch them all the time.
It’s important to remember that the changes that happened in their brain if they were abused or neglected when they are younger are likely set. You can’t undo but you can manage. If it happened when she was older, she’ll be able to move past it a lot easier. Abandoned cats also have issues feeling safe in their environment.
They can be aggressive, but I’ve more often seen them be completely terrified. I think she’s confident with you and in the environment since you’ve had her for so long. I think you mentioned she had health problems too. That could sort of be pulling her into the past. They do have really good memories around things that were really great, and things that were really awful.
Since she’s 15, it’s going to be really hard to make behavior modifications, so make your goal to keep her calm. I don’t know if you can undo what’s going on, especially if she’s having health issues. Remember for her, she’s not seeing things the way they actually are. Try to be understanding.
If you aren’t home, maybe her anxiety spikes for some reason. I’d ask someone to check in on her and spend time with her so she isn’t alone. I also don’t know if some mild medication would help keep her calm, but that could be an option.
There were a lot of different subjects talked about in this call. To wrap up, be sure to teach your cat proper scratching habits as soon as you get them. The older they are and longer they’re in your home, the harder it will be, making training difficult.
Also, there are many complications that can come with declawing, making it a very risky decision. Lastly, be sure to monitor your cat’s litter box usage so you can catch urinary blockages or urinary tract infections as soon as possible.