How I learned to stop worrying and love the cat

Oscar had a scratching problem. Everywhere, all the time. Furniture, cabinets, the rug, my head. Here’s Oscar, so you can think about his adorable face scratching up the house as I talk about how I solved the problem.

Now I should caveat and hedge a bit, and say “solved” is a relative term. As often happens with animals, you eventually reach a place of mutual understanding and self-sacrifice, and have to be content with that.

My first innovation was foil. Everywhere he would scratch, I would tape up a sheet of aluminum foil. Oscar was not a fan. Foil on the couch, foil on the rug, foil on the cabinets, the back of the chair, the leg of the desk. But he kept scratching other places, and I kept foiling. More scratching. More foil. More scratching still. The living room was starting to look like a space ship. Eventually he realized that scratching at the foil was bad, but not terrible, and if he did it right the foil might came loose.

The living room was starting to look like a space ship.

Sisal cat scratching postBut I still think foil was partially successful. It was a deterrent at a time when he was still getting accustomed to the house, it just needed to be combined with other solutions. One attempted solution was a sisal-covered vertical scratching post. Oh man, Oscar hated that. The first time he tried it he got his claw stuck and then it fell over on him. Ever after he was loathe to touch it, even if dusted with catnip (which he seems immune to) and secured to the floor with duct tape. He was briefly interested in the actual duct tape, but then he got a claw stuck in that as well and was done with the whole thing, permanently.

No scratching post, no catnip, no foil. What’s left? A water bottle. Spray him when he scratches where he shouldn’t. I’ll add that concurrent with cat training I was working on a big project at work and was doing a lot of the job from home, so I had plenty of time alone with the cat. The trick with the water bottle, apparently, is that the cat needs to be surprised by the spray and associate it with his action at the time, and not with his owner. So you can’t get caught spraying him, you’ve gotta get him from behind.

Yeah, Oscar was too clever for that. He flipped around and caught me on the first spray. Ever after, whenever I’d reach for the spray bottle, he’d tense. I still use it occasionally, but I’m not sure how effective it is. He responds to it in my presence, but knowing that it will only come when I’m around, it is unlikely to discourage him from the bad action when I’m out of the house.

The solution came about mostly by accident. I had gotten a ceiling fan in the mail and the big cardboard box was sitting in my room. He scratched at it. It fell on him. He came back later and tried again. This kitty has a thing for cardboard. Aha!

The first step was giving him a ton of cardboard to play with. I cut out a huge sheet of it from another box and put it over much of the rug where he tends to have the most fun. Every time he’d scratch something, I’d hit him lightly on the nose, pick him up, and put him on the cardboard sheet. He soon figured it out, and was shredding with abandon, often looking up at me for approval. This is serious progress.

For better or worse, a pet animal is not a simple possession and often behavior problems do not have simple solutions.

A week later, I cut the cardboard in half, and turned it into a double-layer square. He was a bit confused at first, but soon forgot about the formerly limitless cardboard and got to work on his smaller segment. A few days later I halved it again, and still he was doing okay. Between the cardboard, lots of play time with me, and getting used to the house (not to mention all that icky foil going away), Oscar calmed down considerably.

iScratchI was not content to have a big piece of cardboard sitting on the carpet for all eternity. At Petco I found a silly thing called an “iScratch,” a plastic frame that holds a thick and very cat-pleasing replacable textured cardboard insert. The $12 iScratch can be mounted on a wall, at an angle, hung from a door, or just sit on the floor. Oscar is perfectly content with it sitting on the ground. I thought I’d have to secure it, but he just sits on it and scratches, keeping it in place himself. I bought one to supplement the cardboard and, after he got used to it, bought a second and removed the cardboard sheet entirely, leaving behind just two small iScratches. In my room, where there is no scratching post, he still goes at the carpet, but I don’t mind. In the living room he’ll stretch on the rug and scratch it a bit, but it is tolerable. He doesn’t touch the couch or chairs anymore, and when he stretches up on the kitchen cabinets (to tell me he’s hungry) his claws extend but he has learned to keep them off the wood.

The most important factor in training the cat to not scratch was attention — spending a lot of time with him, figuring out his habits, experimenting with different deterrents and scratching replacements, and eventually arriving at a mutually acceptable solution. Early on a family member asked if I was going to “return” the cat due to the scratching. Another suggested I get him declawed. I’m happy to say Oscar is not getting “returned” and he gets to keep his claws (although they are getting trimmed every week or so). And, like Dr. Strangelove in a slightly different context, I was able to learn to stop worrying and love the cat.

For better or worse, a pet animal is not a simple possession and often behavior problems do not have simple solutions. I’m no expert, I’m just a guy who had a lot of time alone in a room with his cat, and was able to come to an understanding, Godfather-style. If you’re in a similar situation, have patience. It will get better, and both you and the cat will end up happy in the end.

9 replies on “How I learned to stop worrying and love the cat”

  1. hahaha

    wish i coulda seen oscar’s foiled kingdom. (ha, does igor read this and is he proud?)

    awww oscar. glad you didn’t get him declawed, he gives good back scratches! (does he climb on your back every time you’re lying on your stomach reading?) i have good oscar photos that need posting

    (weird, this comment didn’t go through the first time, i think?)

  2. I’m so happy to read this, not just because I know you and and I’m glad you worked it out with Oscar – I’m glad because it is a well written explanation of the complexities of pet ownership. I wish more people would make a commitment to their pets instead of just returning them like they’re some cheap toy.

  3. @oscar-sitter: Yes, he was just sitting on my back, in fact, and purring in my ear, and occasionally licking at my hair. He does demand a lot of attention. Now he’s sleeping on top of the dresser, hiding behind a plant, with paws outstretched. Adorable.

  4. Have you considered a career as an animal psychologist?
    I do not think the educational requirements are too great, and you clearly have a knack for this kind of thing!
    Perhaps you have discovered your hidden talent.
    I am impressed with your patience. Probably not quite as impressed with Oscar.

  5. Your diligence paid off… I am not sure that I would have the patience but cats are smart and teachable and you are doing a great job to teach him right! Awww! He is so cute too!

Comments are closed.