I have talked to many people over the years who have expressed enormous frustration with their cat’s clawing behavior. Although clawing is a natural feline activity, many cats end up in shelters after destroying expensive furniture. If Fluffy is clawing your great-grandmother’s antique sofa, all is not lost. There are things you can do to help encourage Fluffy to claw elsewhere.
First you need to pay attention to when and where your cat scratches. Cats have individual scratching preferences. For example, one of our cats, inevitably claws when she wakes up from a nap. She does a long horizontal claw-stretch thing. So for her, the ideal scratching item is not a vertical kitty tree, but rather a horizontal board. Our other cat likes to claw vertically, so she uses the tree. (And no, neither one of them uses the sofa.)
If a cat scratches in a particular place, he is more likely to scratch there again because when a cat scratches, he releases pheromones from glands in the skin of his paws. Clawing and scratching behavior has as much to do with marking territory as it does with sharpening claws. Because scratching is a natural activity, a cat is going to claw something. It’s what they do. For a house cat, your furniture is the obvious likely candidate, unless you give the cat a better alternative.
When dealing with cats, it’s always best to make it appealing for the cat to choose what you want. If you don’t want your cat to scratch the sofa, you need to give him something better to claw. Some cats, including ours, find sisal rope to be the ideal clawing surface. So we made a sisal rope tree and two sisal boards for them to claw.
When the cats feel the need to scratch, they go over to the board or tree and claw profusely. We usually say complimentary things, so they know that using the board or tree is a fine, fine thing. The board is an 18-inch long 1×10 piece of scrap pine wrapped with sisal rope. The total cost was about $2.50 at the most, so anyone can afford it. Our kitty tree is a three-level "tripod" tree that we made out of scrap plywood and a 5-inch diameter branch that fell down during a storm. It too was really cheap to assemble; it cost maybe $10. We wrapped the center pole of the tree with sisal rope and covered the platforms with old carpet. The second level has a hole cut in it so the cat can run up the pole, and through the hole to the second level.
Of course, the cat may want to test a number of new clawing frontiers, so after redirection, the next step is to discourage your cat if he claws some place you don’t want. We use squirt bottles and say "no" to indicate to the cat that clawing other places is a bad plan. When our cats were kittens as soon as we saw them claw anything "bad" even a little bit, we’d pick them up and hold them up next to the sisal rope-covered pole of the kitty tree until they reached out their paws. They’d instinctively reach for the tree and latch on. Since they were small, they had no choice but to scurry up. This proved to be a great way to teach them that the tree was theirs and it was a lot of fun to claw.
In addition to kitty furniture, you may also want to think about your furniture as well. When you are shopping, think about the sofa from your cat’s point of view. Some sofas are made of cloth that just looks like it was made to be clawed and collects hair like a magnet. Generally smoother fabrics are better; sometimes, just a less appealing slipcover can make a big difference. If your cat has already decided your sofa is a scratching post, you can try putting strips of double-stick tape on the claw spots to discourage further activity.
Finally, it may seem obvious, but keep your cat’s claws trimmed. A cat with huge claws almost can’t help clawing everything by just moving around the house. It also should go without saying that long claws can do a lot more damage than short ones.
Of course, sometimes all your plans don’t work and the cat insists on scratching something you care about. In that case, talk to your vet. A nail covering product called Soft Paws is available and of course declawing. However, declawing really should be used as a last resort and never should be done on cats that go outside. It’s major surgery, so talk to your vet about the potential long and short-term side effects.