Posted: Oct. 1, 2012, 3:10 p.m. EDT
Helping customers address cat scratching and other negative behaviors builds trust and business relationships.
By Steven Appelbaum
Consider this: A customer comes home and—instead of finding a beautiful cat lying curled up on a bed, a picture of feline bliss—discovers a nightmare scene. The cat owner’s room looks like someone took a buzz saw to the couch or, at the very least, Freddy Krueger has been redecorating the living room.
While the description will likely elicit smiles from those who have seen this scenario before, pet owners and pet retailers understand this kind of behavior can be expensive and frustrating. It can lead to owners re-homing or abandoning their cats, which ultimately translates into a possible loss of business for pet retailers. It is for all of these reasons that retailers should educate their staff and themselves about how to address this behavior challenge.
The first thing to understand is that scratching on objects—be it furniture, curtains or trees—is a natural feline behavior. Granted, there aren’t many loveseats in the wild, but cats don’t understand the finer points of home decoration. To them, articles of furniture are just objects in their territory to be marked or used to sharpen their claws, exercising their natural instincts.
Yes, the bottom line is that customers are not going to stop their cats, especially the young ones, from scratching any more than they can stop a young puppy from chewing. In fact, many cats never outgrow scratching, as it is such a normal behavior in all stages of their lives.
As most kitty owners clearly understand, trying to stop cats from doing something they are intent on doing is next to impossible. The key is to redirect that inclination so that the cat scratches on the “proper” objects, and is thus far more inclined to leave furniture alone.
In dealing with any behavior, a good trainer first tries to understand what the motivations or root causes are. In the case of scratching, this is usually pretty simple. Most cats scratch because they are marking territory, sharpening their claws and because it probably feels pleasurable to them.
All cats have scent glands in the pads of their feet. When a cat marks territory by scratching, it is leaving both visual scratch marks as well as chemical scent signatures called pheromones. The urge to mark territory is powerful and explains why even when cats are declawed, they often continue to leave pheromones by scratching the same areas as before.
Scratching posts are the best way to redirect customers’ felines’ scratching instincts. However, all posts are not created equal, and often even the finest posts won’t work if cat owners just put them on the floor and hope for the best.
When helping a customer choose a post, remember that it must be sturdy enough to not fall over when the cat goes to use it. This is very important. It also must be tall enough for the cat to stretch as it scratches. A height of 28 inches seems to be a minimum requirement.
The material of the post also needs to be specific. Sisal is a type of agave plant and is used to make a hardy, rough material used in ropes, dartboards and scratching posts. This material allows the cat to make visually discernable marks without destroying the product, and is the best substance for a scratching post.
A good example of a sisal post is the SmartCat Ultimate Scratching Post. This product is 32-inches high, which is a great height to allow the cat to really stretch, has a sturdy base to prevent it from toppling when used and seems quite well-built and durable. Another great post is made by Schelling Veterinary Services—The Purrfect Post. This product might possibly be the best one I have seen, but only seems to be available through the manufacturer, and they sell directly to the public.
Schelling also sells Soft Paws and Soft Claws, which are basically nontoxic nail covers that are glued to the cats’ nails. These allow the cat to scratch on whatever it wants without causing much in the way of damage.
This is an interesting product and it appears to work in many cases. However, I recommend scratching posts over Soft Paws because some people have a very tough time getting their cats to stay still long enough to apply them, and still other felines really don’t seem to like them.
Once they have purchased a scratching post, instruct owners to place it near objects the cat has previously scratched. Tell them to make it a point to praise and reward any scratching they witness on the post. Catnip can also be placed near the posts to make them even more desirable.
Four Paws and many other companies offer quality catnip. Some cat owners have reported success by playing with their cat near the posts using interactive products such as Kong’s Denim Ball and Feathers toy, or the Hartz Angry Birds Cat Teaser Wand with Feathers.
As the cat bats and scratches at the toys, it will often scratch the post, which will allow customers to reward and praise the correct scratching behavior.
Tell owners to avoid punishing the cat for scratching on furniture when they are not around. If they happen to catch their cat in the act of doing this, a sharp hiss should be enough to get it to stop. Then, suggest they try to refocus the cat’s attention back to the post, though they should not attempt to force the cat to scratch anything.
The cat in this situation will do this when it is ready, and attempted force just makes things worse. If a customer reports seeing the cat returning to inappropriate objects, suggest they try affixing thick plastic sheeting to those objects. This makes scratching on these objects less pleasurable, although it is of course easier to put plastic on couches than on drapes.
A little patience and strong encouragement for appropriate scratching will allow most owners to get this problem under control in a few weeks.
Steven Appelbaum is the president of Animal Behavior College, a vocational institution devoted to helping animal lovers succeed in animal careers. Appelbaum has been a professional animal trainer for 30 years. He is the author of the book “The ABC Practical Guide to Dog Training,” and is a freelance writer, lecturer and consultant.
The Education Series: Training & Behavior Modification column is brought to you in part by Farnam.
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