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Scratching Posts, Exercise, and Play

Exercise is as important for cats as it is for people. Although cats sleep a lot, they want to stay in shape for the hunt. Cats pounce, jump, play, chase each other around, and scratch. These activities keep their muscles and reflexes tuned for hunting and pouncing, and also keep their psyches relaxed, confident, and healthy.

All cats can benefit from one or two play times each day. Find a time when you both are in the mood. It’s almost always difficult enough to get cats to play, so avoid times when they really don’t feel like it. Popular times cats play are after breakfast and before or after dinner.

Scratching Posts

Scratching is very important exercise. It’s natural, which means you don’t have to teach your cat how to scratch, only where to scratch—on his scratching post or his scratching tree. A cat tree serves the same function as a scratching post, but it’s taller and has one or more platforms that the cat can rest on.

(Except where explicitly distinguished, when we mention posts and trees, we mean either one.)

As a cat owner, you want your pet to scratch to strengthen his chest, back, stomach, and shoulders. This releases physical and emotional stress that a cat would otherwise store. A stronger body means more confidence and higher self-esteem, which in turn means fewer behavior problems and lower medical bills. At the same time, as a cat owner, you want to have nice furniture. Training your cat to use a scratching post is the answer.

You will not need a squirt bottle to train your cat to stay off the furniture and use his scratching post. Squirting will not yield the results you want. Squirting only stops your cat from scratching in front of you. All it teaches him is to fear squirt bottles; it does not teach him to use his post.

Louie on his scratching post.

Louie scratching the Felix Katnip Tree.

Warning

If you’re thinking of declawing your cat to avoid scratching problems, beware! See “Declawed Cats” in “Special Considerations” (below).

Training your cat to use a post is absolutely the easiest lesson to teach. He will understand within a few days. A cat that has been badly trained, abused, or taught incorrectly takes longer, but will learn. Your cat is very smart and very eager to show off to you just how well he scratches. In about a month he’ll refine his new habit. Kittens, once they are old enough to scratch, learn in just a few days.

Scratching on a good post or climbing a tall cat tree is the best exercise a cat can get, and it’s the easiest way for a cat to exercise indoors.

Scratching Post Basics

There is no question that your cat needs a post. Don’t expect him to not scratch or to wait to go outside to use a tree. Get a post with a rough surface, such as sisal rope, carpet, or natural bark. Smooth surfaces don’t let a cat lock his claws and pull; he needs something rugged.

The scratching post must be sturdy and must not fall, slide, or wiggle while he’s using it. The post also should be tall enough—28 inches or more—to allow your cat to stretch his body full out while standing on his hind legs. It’s a good idea to have a few scratching posts and at least one tall cat tree so that no matter where he is in your house, there’s a good place to scratch nearby.

Do not place the posts behind furniture or other obstacles. Two good places are near the door where you come in and near the door he uses to go outside. Whenever you see him use the post, praise and reward him. To let your cat know the post is his, spray it with catnip. Occasionally, dab a little perfume on things that you really want the cat to know are off-limits. Some cats hate perfume.

Scratching Post Training

If you’re training an adult cat, cover vulnerable furniture with heavy plastic or slippery durable fabric such as that used for wipe-clean tablecloths. That way, he’ll have no alternative but to use the post, and you’ll be able to avoid reprimands while he’s in training. Clean any previously damaged areas to remove scent before covering. Be sure to secure the bottom edge of the protective cover or the cat will reach up under it to scratch. Upholstery twist pins work well for this purpose.

If you have too much furniture to cover, consider confining the cat during those times when you can’t watch him, until his training is complete. Make him use his post before he’s allowed to leave the confinement room for brief periods. At the same time, place as much protection as you can on the roughest sofas you may own. Confinement shouldn’t be necessary for more than a few weeks, because a cat will do practically anything to be free. Scratching is one of the first things he’ll do when he’s frustrated.

Kittens learn very quickly if you confine them when you can’t watch them. (See the “Special Considerations” about kittens below. Also see Bringing Home a New Cat for more information about confinement.)

 

Helpful Hint

If your cat has been taught not to scratch, you need to get him to scratch in front of you. To help retrain a cat, use a new lure toy on his new scratching post. Also, hide the squirt bottles if you were using them.

To start training, move the post to a high-traffic area and scratch the post yourself for a few seconds while your cat is watching. It might sound silly, but smile and make eye contact with the cat during this period—many cats take their emotional cues from you. Associate happiness with his post. If he uses it, even if just for a split second, praise and pet him lavishly. If he doesn’t use it now, be patient.

Cats usually scratch after waking up or eating. As soon as he makes a move to scratch, gently direct or carry him to his post. Speak gently and positively whenever he is near the post. Say his name and pet him if he uses it.

Scratching Posts
Types Descriptions/Comments Source, Approx. Cost
Cat Posts Very effective in working the upper body. Sizes and styles vary; the taller, the better. Some are covered with carpet, others with sisal rope, fabric, bark, or another textured material. Pet stores, mail order. The 28-inch sisal-covered Large Katnip Tree by Felix Katnip Tree Company is excellent for enticing cats to scratch. The scratching part is replaceable but even after fifteen years, in constant use by four cats, we found that the Felix Katnip Tree still looks practically brand new.
Cat Trees Cat trees are tall scratching posts usually with platforms for the cat to rest. Climbing helps build both upper and lower body. Look for cat tree models covered with carpet or material that the cat can grasp. Avoid cat trees made of fake fur that may be too slippery for your cat to grab and stop himself from falling. Pet stores, mail order. Good ones cost $100 to $300 but last several years. The Felix Climber extends to the ceiling and is compact for apartments. The parts are replaceable.
Tree Limbs Get a long tree limb 4 to 6 inches thick, with rough bark. It’s effective and inexpensive. Secure it in an upright or slanted position by leaning it against something solid, make sure it can’t fall. The log can also simply be placed on the floor for horizontal scratching. Usually free when the city does spring cleanup on trees.
Others Scratch pads often are made out of corrugated cardboard strips. These pads lie loose on the ground and accommodate a cat that is inclined to scratch the floor. These should complement scratching posts, not replace them. A cat still needs to scratch tall, upright posts. Wall-mountable scratch pads with replaceable pads are available too. Pads that move, such as those that can be hung on doorknobs, generally are not used by cats. Pet stores, mail order. Cardboard scratch pads come in a wide range of prices, so shop around. Or make your own out of an old cardboard box. Trader Joes carries a very inexpensive cardboard scratch pad.

Best Times to Direct Your Cat to His Post
  • Early morning, right after he wakes up
  • When you get home from work (many cats love to “show off” when they haven’t seen their owners all day)
  • Before he wants breakfast, lunch, or dinner
  • After his nap
  • After eating
  • Before he wants to go out
  • Right before scheduled play time
  • After he uses the litter box
  • When he’s angry, frustrated, happy, or proud

You also can make a game out of it. Wiggle a pipe cleaner or toy up the scratching post so that the cat can’t help but claw at it. Play with his lure toy on it. (See the section on “Lure Toys” below.) As soon as a claw touches the post, say “Good boy,” and pet him. Reinforce this positive association by continuing to play with him on or near the post.

Use food to encourage his good behavior. At feeding time, scratch the post and say “Time to scratch.” Then wait. If he doesn’t take the hint, hold him so his front legs are extended and he has to grasp the post to keep himself from falling. As soon as one claw becomes caught on the post, praise him and let him go. Reward him with a treat or a wet meal. But taper off the use of food as a reward after the cat has had a few days on the post. Gradually switch to rewarding him with petting, praise, and play.

Your cat will make the connection to using his post even faster when he wants to go outside. A cat that is used to going outside will turn to scratching when he doesn’t get his way. Make this behavior a part of his training by keeping a post near the door. Then, before you let him out, make sure he uses the post first. Either waiting for him to scratch it or pick him up and make him scratch it by sliding him down his post until his claws catch. After a few days of this, wait for him to scratch the post on his own. Don’t let him outside until he does.

Warning

Be careful with your hands around your cat when he is in his tree. He may act a little feisty there, and that’s okay. A cat should be allowed to be aggressive on his tree. If you accidentally get scratched while he’s on his cat tree, say “Ouch” and walk away. Later, when the cat is away from his tree, check to see if his nails need trimming.

Once your cat begins scratching on his own, it’s crucial that you continue to praise and/or pet him for using it every day. He’ll especially want to show off when you come home from work.

Don’t Scratch That!

The final phase is teaching your cat not to scratch the furniture. Once he’s using the post on his own for a month or so, it’s time to unveil a piece of furniture. Do it on a day when you will be home, such as when you’re doing housework. Keep an eye out. If your cat starts to scratch the furniture, immediately say “No!” in a firm yet caring manner. Then gently carry him to the post. As soon as he’s at the post, say “Time to scratch” in a sweet, gentle tone. Slide his body down the post until his claws engage. As soon as a claw catches in the post, say “Good boy,” release him, and then pet him for a second or two.

Re-cover the piece of furniture when you won’t be there, and repeat the process one or more times a day. As the cat becomes more dependable in using the post on his own, gradually remove more of the furniture covers. If the cat has a special spot he likes to scratch, cover it with Sticky Paws (www.stickypaws.com) or with wide shipping tape or double-stick tape until you are sure he’ll behave. Make sure the tape won’t damage the furniture before you use it.

If he continues to scratch the sofa after a few weeks, reprimand him more sharply as each occurrence happens. Start showing anger in your voice. Try to get your hands on him as soon as he scratches, and then point him to the sofa and say “No!” again. Then, either carry him to his scratching post or trim a nail while he’s in front of the sofa. Either way, as soon as he’s near his post or as soon as you have a paw in your hand ready to clip, change to a sweet tone and tell him he’s a good boy.

Your cat will learn that the post is the only acceptable place for him to scratch. Once trained, cats seldom make mistakes. Continue to praise him daily and keep his nails trimmed regularly. In the event he does make a mistake, a blunt claw can do little to no damage.

The Great Outdoors

There are many ways to increase your cat’s physical activity. Sometimes a cat needs motivation to get enough exercise. To a cat, the outdoors is one of the best motivators around. Nothing arouses his curiosity or his hunting instincts as much. A few cats don’t want to go outside, but most cats enjoy it. Consult Outside/Inside Training for advice about how to train your cat to stay in the yard.

Other Cats

Some cats will play with you when other cats are around, but with some shy cats you need to keep other cats away. Most cats love to play with each other. They’ll run, tug, and pull each other, which helps build muscles and confidence. Hang an old sheet over a chair and watch two cats play and dive together. Or give them something as simple as a cardboard box or brown paper bag and watch how they amuse themselves with it.

Lure Toys

Playing with your cat provides additional exercise and helps him build trust and confidence in you. The easiest play motivator is a lure toy. A lure toy is a rod with a thick string or wire that dangles from the end. You can buy lure toys, or you can make them at home quickly and cheaply. Buy a three-foot-long one-quarter-inch wooden dowel or a yardstick from a hardware or crafts store. Or use an old fishing rod. Attach a piece of cord to the end (use tape or tie it on). That’s all you need. You also can tie feathers or strips of fabric to the end of the cord.

 

Warning

Never use your hands to play with a cat. You could get hurt. Use a toy.

One favorite lure toy is the Cat Dancer attached to a wire at the end of the rod. This toy has some cardboard strips on the end of a curved springy wire, and is readily available at pet stores, shelters, and through mail-order catalogs.

Another exceptional toy is Da Bird by Go Cat (www.go-cat.com). The fiberglass rod comes with a lifetime guarantee and is light and easy to hold. The lures are replaceable, and come in mylar strips as well as feathers. The lures flutter when moved through the air, and they almost sound like a bird flying, which really gets your cat’s attention.

Helpful Hint

Restrict playing with your cat to one room so he won’t annoy you by wanting to play in other rooms where you work, cook, or eat.

Pique your cat’s curiosity by keeping the toy out of reach and mysterious. After he’s chased it for a few minutes, allow him to grab it. Don’t make the toy too easy to catch or he will lose interest.

It’s easy to get distracted, so it’s better not to talk on the phone or watch TV while you’re playing with the cat. Radios are okay, because the constant chatter or sounds cover up smaller sounds that may distract him from playing. Some cats will think you are talking to them when you’re on the phone.

Tell your cat how wonderful he is when he catches the lure or does a good jump. Encourage him even if he isn’t spectacular, and say his name softly, with pride. To help him feel like a proud hunter, allow him to catch the toy often. If he touches it while it’s in flight, let it fall down as if he caught it. Let him spend time with his prize before you whisk it away. Give your cat the advantage; let the lure toy be vulnerable prey.

Pretend you’re fishing, and “cast” the lure to various spots in the room. It takes a few casts for cats, just like fish, to take the bait. Stop the action every once in a while to give him time to pounce.

Pay attention to which movements your cat likes. Does he like the lure moving high? Low? Fast, slow? In corners? Out in the open? Close or far? Try many variations and see what works. Cats get fascinated when you drag the toy around a corner and keep it there just out of sight. Sometimes it takes patience to get a cat to attack the lure. Some cats prefer playing on carpet and will stop playing when the toy moves to a hard floor.

Many aren’t willing to start playing until they’ve understood the lure’s movements, so don’t give up too soon.

End the play time when he’s lost interest for a while, not when he’s having fun. If you must end the play before he’s ready to quit, be sure to pet, massage, and cuddle him a little before leaving. Always put the lure toys away so that he can’t get at them when you’re not there.

Other Toys

Reflect a spot of sunlight off your watch onto the wall or floor, or use a flashlight to encourage your cat to chase. You also can try a laser light pointer, which you can find at office supply stores. (Warning: Be sure never to shine a laser light in his eyes.)

Catnip soap bubbles are available from pet stores or catalogs. You also can squirt some catnip spray into a regular bottle of bubble solution.

Ping-Pong balls, paper bags, fake mice, toys stuffed with catnip—anything that can be batted around and pounced on—can attract your cat. Cut off elastic cords, strings, tails, glued-on eyes, yarn, or anything else he could chew off and swallow.

 

Do Not Use These Toys
  • Balls of string or yarn: Cats can swallow and choke on them. Anything with loose string should be stored away when you’re not there.
  • Toys with decorations glued on: Cut off all decorations before you give the toy to your cat. He could swallow them.
  • Toys attached to thin elastic: Cut off the elastic before giving the toy to your cat.

Spray catnip scent on toys about once a year so he’ll be reminded of the things he owns. To maintain the cat’s interest in the toys, rotate them through various rooms or hide them for a while every few months.

Special Considerations

Cats, like people, require special considerations regarding exercise. When people are very old or very young we aren’t expected to do as much exercise as healthy adults. And disabled people missing fingers, toes, and limbs are prescribed physical therapy and medications to help compensate for their loss and to manage the pain. The same applies to older cats, kittens and declawed cats.

Older Cats

It’s sometimes (but not always) difficult to get an older cat interested in lure toys. To make it easier for him to get his exercise, provide a scratching post near his bed. Although most older cats won’t wander far from home, monitor your older cat closely when he’s outside, because he won’t be able to protect himself as well as he once could.

Declawed Cats

A declawed cat is handicapped. Don’t try to train a declawed cat to use a post. He cannot use a scratching post as a clawed cat would, and he should not be expected to. He won’t be able to grasp or dig into the post and may end up frustrated. And he’ll fall off carpeted cat trees more often than will a clawed cat. He’ll need to exercise some other way.

Lure toys and running around indoors can provide some exercise. Just don’t expect too much, because cats aren’t inclined to run, and you don’t want to “make” a declawed cat run around. It’s cruel to force a cat with sore feet cat to run around or walk a long distance for bathroom, food or water. We don’t expect a loved one who is missing all her toes to park her car in the furthest parking spot. It’s not in a cat’s nature to run, let alone on compromised painful feet.

Playing with another cat is good. It’s okay if his buddy has claws; other cats recognize handicaps. Supervise him on outside walks where he can climb chainlink fences or rough-barked trees. Remember that he’s very clumsy and vulnerable, so you have to watch him. A declawed cat needs constant adult supervision when outside because he cannot properly defend himself.

Kittens

Teaching a kitten where to scratch is very easy. Whenever you want to let him out of his confinement room, take him to the post first. Hold his paws up to it. Once one claw catches, reward him immediately by petting. Let him scratch more if he wants to, and then carry him out of the confinement room. The sooner you start noticing a kitten actively scratching his post, all on his own, the sooner you can give him access to the rest of the house. Some kittens may understand when they’re as young as five months.

As long as there are cat posts available and you are there to say “Good boy,” he’ll use them several times a day—for the rest of his life.

Shopping List
  • Scratching posts and cat trees
  • Catnip spray or loose catnip leaves
  • Furniture cover (heavy-duty plastic or tablecloth fabric found at fabric stores)
  • Upholstery twist pins (found at hardware or fabric stores)
  • Cat toys (lure toys, toys stuffed with catnip; Ping-Pong balls; pipe cleaners; etc.)
  • The Cat Dancer (found in most pet stores)
  • Da Bird by Go Cat (pet stores)

Optional

See Cat Products for more information on toys and scratching posts.

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