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Scratching Below the Surface

Cat Scratching as Communication

by Guest Writer C.H.U. (Clyde's Human Unit, Webmaster of ClydeSight2.0!)

The Sound You HATE to Hear

You're sitting at your computer when you hear a sound all cat owners DREAD, the tearing of claws on fabric! You rush into the next room and grab the squirt bottle or can o' coins. Your cat takes off for under the bed. You return to your computer muttering.

Did you notice the cat toy in the center of the room, right where the cat was sitting before you charged in?

Maybe, your cat was trying to tell you something!

Many people complain of cats scratching and clawing furniture. The usual hypothesis is that cats scratch furniture to maintain their claws. If a cat scratches the furniture instead of a scratch post, the recommended treatment is a squirt from a spray bottle, or shaking a can filled with coins. Of course, it is necessary to train the cat.

But what if the cat has a scratching post and regularly uses it? Why would the cat scratch the furniture? Is it laziness? Is it lack of training? While these are possible explanations, there is one other reason why a cat might do this. It is trying to communicate, to get your attention! In this case, use of training methods like the can o' coins or the squirt bottle simply frustrates the cat.

Cats are highly intelligent. According to some research, they can achieve the mental level of a 2-year old human. Cats are also great problem solvers and will work out ways to get what they want. The problem is, they have difficulty communicating their needs to us.

Cats Communicate in Many Ways

When we hear "meow", it can mean any number of things besides "Hello" or "I'm hungry". Research has shown that cats have a large vocabulary of vocalizations for many situations. Cat ears can distinguish a difference between 1/5 and 1/10th of a tone. Humans cannot distinguish such fine gradations in sound. The most complex human music is based only on 1/4 tones. The differences in a cat's vocal expressions are sometimes imperceptible to humans.

Cats also communicate via body language. If your cat comes toward you with tail up and stretches its back legs behind it in a lazy, almost yawning fashion, it is saying, "I'm cool. Glad to see you. Things are fine." Sometimes if you look at your cat, and it is relaxed and in the mood, it will give you a kind of blink, a slow closing of the eyes and then opening. If you do the same, sometimes the cat will repeat the blink. This is a cat equivalent of a smile or a nod. Another "hello".

And cats communicate via behavior. Cats have personalities and emotions. Many would prefer to lead peaceful lives with their human companions. But if they MUST get your attention, they'll do whatever it takes to get it.

Sometimes, when a cat scratches furniture or engages in other behaviors that it has been trained not to, it is trying to send a message. If it has been trained, it knows how to get your attention, even if that attention is negative.

The best solution in these cases is to try and discover what the cat wants. It could be a simple as "Play with me".

Eddie's Subtle Message

Here's an example. Eddie Cat, my 3 year old tabby, has a favorite toy, a "cat dancer". He wants me to swing it around for him rather than bat at it hanging from a doorknob. But if I am busy, I'm not paying attention to him.

For weeks, I had to deal with his "message". He would drag his claws along the wall making the most awful screech. Of course, this is undesirable behavior, and he got the can o' coins shook at him. Until one day, I noticed that he ran from me and headed straight for the toy, lying on the floor. The "dawn of understanding" came to me at last. Eddie wanted ME to play with him.

So I said to him "If you want me to play, ask me by meowing." Now, some people say cats cannot understand human speech. But I'm not so sure. So I tested it. Instead of shaking the can at him, I spoke to him each time he scratched the walls. In a few days, Eddie, who was not a very vocal cat, started meowing from the other room. I was careful to respond immediately, and there was Eddie, next to his toy. I knew what he wanted and I played with him.

This solution has worked quite well. Of course, I now hear a lot of meowing because Eddie seems to be inexhaustible. And, if I don't respond to his meow to play (you can guess this one), Eddie starts in on the walls. There is an added bonus. Because we have developed a deeper level of understanding, Eddie has grown more affectionate. His behavior and body language tell me that he appreciates the respect I have shown him by learning what he wants and responding to it.

So, if you have a problem with a cat scratching the furniture, even though it uses a scratch post, look a little deeper into the situation. Chances are, the cat is trying to tell you something. With a little attention, and some detective work, you may not only save your furniture, but you may find yourself developing a richer and more interesting relationship with that most wonderful animal, your cat.

C.H.U. has spent a lifetime in the company of cats. C.H.U. became Clyde's Human Unit when Clyde Big Paws, the tabby cat, came to live in 1990. Clyde crossed the Rainbow Bridge in 1997. C.H.U. has been the Web master and a member of the board of the Melrose Humane Society since 1998 as part of the Legacy of Clyde. C.H.U. holds a Master's degree in Communication from Emerson College in Massachusetts and has taught continuing education courses in the use of computers and computers for communication. C.H.U. is currently being trained by the Melrose Humane Society and Gertrude and Eddie Cats in the art of cat-human communicatioin techniques.

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