Why Do Cats Scratch? The Surprising Truth Behind Kitty’s Claws


There is a common belief among cat owners that cats scratch people purely for fun or to annoy them. Many perceive cats swiping their claws at their owners as a form of playful mischief that cats enjoy for no apparent reason. This negative perception has led to cats getting an undeserved reputation for aggression and bad behavior.

However, scratching is a natural instinctive behavior for cats that serves a purpose. In this article, we will analyze whether the notion that cats scratch people for enjoyment is really accurate. Our goal is to explore the underlying motivations behind this clawing behavior in order to better understand our feline companions.

Normal Cat Scratching Behavior

Scratching is a normal and instinctual behavior for cats. Cats scratch for several reasons:

Marking territory – Scratching leaves both a visual mark and a scent mark from the paw pads. This helps establish a cat’s territory, especially for outdoor cats.

Shedding claws – Scratching helps cats remove the outer layers of their claws to expose new sharp claws underneath. This is similar to how other animals naturally wear down their claws.

Stretching – Scratching stretches and works a cat’s front and back muscles and joints. Cats like to scratch after napping to get their bodies moving again.

Relieving stress or excitement – Scratching releases endorphins that help cats relieve anxiety, stress or excitement. The repetitive motion of scratching has a calming effect.

Cats often like to scratch trees, furniture, carpets, walls and other household objects. Scratching is not necessarily a sign of bad behavior, but an instinct cats are born with and should be able to satisfy.

Providing appropriate scratching posts and surfaces is the best way to allow scratching while protecting household objects. Understanding why cats scratch can help owners meet their pet’s natural needs.

Why Cats May Scratch People

Cats generally do not scratch people out of spite or for fun. Scratching people is usually a result of normal cat behavior and instinct. There are a few main reasons a cat may scratch a person:

Play – Scratching during play is a normal part of hunting behavior for cats. They may scratch people with their hind legs when playing excitedly. Kittens tend to play roughly and may scratch when overstimulated.

Fear or Stress – Cats may scratch defensively if they feel afraid, stressed or threatened. This could occur if being handled roughly or restrained against their will.

Petting Overstimulation – Some cats can become overstimulated when being petted by humans. The scratches are a reflex reaction when they get overly excited. This is often seen in cats that are very attached or bonded with their owners.

Territory Marking – Cats have scent glands in their paws and will scratch objects or people to mark their territory. This scratching is not aggressive, but a form of communication.

While scratching people may seem aggressive, it is important to understand the underlying motivation is not to harm or attack out of spite. Learning why a cat scratches can help prevent it through proper handling, play and establishing boundaries.

How to Avoid Getting Scratched

Cats can scratch when they feel overstimulated or threatened. To avoid triggering this reaction, move slowly and calmly around cats. Pet them gently in preferred areas like under the chin, and avoid sensitive spots like the stomach and base of the tail. If a cat shows signs of overstimulation like twitching tail or ears back, stop petting so you don’t provoke scratches. Redirect your cat’s energy to appropriate scratching outlets like scratching posts according to experts (source).

Kittens especially may bite or scratch when playing. Avoid using your hands or feet as playthings. Provide lots of interactive toys for your cat to hunt and pounce on instead. Say “gentle” firmly when bitten or scratched, then walk away and ignore them to teach kittens limits (source). Place multiple scratching posts around your home so cats have appealing alternatives to redirect scratching urges towards. Vertical scratching posts allow cats to stretch fully. Covering posts with catnip or treats can further entice scratching. Keeping cats’ nails trimmed regularly minimizes potential scratches if they do make contact.

What to Do If Scratched

If you get scratched by a cat, the first thing to do is wash the wound gently with soap and warm water. Avoid scrubbing the wound, as this can damage tissue. Pat the area dry with a clean towel. You can apply an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin to help prevent infection. Cover the scratch with a sterile bandage or gauze if it is bleeding or oozing.

Check the scratch over the next 24 hours for signs of infection like increasing redness, swelling, warmth at the site, red streaks, drainage of pus, or fever. Most cat scratches do not get infected if cleaned promptly and properly. But if you do observe infection signs, see your doctor right away. They can prescribe oral antibiotics to clear it up.

You should also see a doctor for deep puncture wounds from cat bites, scratches on hand or joints which are hard to immobilize, injuries to people with weakened immune systems, and any wounds that show infection. Your doctor can take a culture to identify the bacteria causing infection. Cat scratches can sometimes transmit a rare bacterial infection called cat scratch disease, which causes swollen lymph nodes.

While most cat scratches heal on their own with basic first aid like washing, antibiotic ointment, and bandages, it’s important to watch for infection and see your doctor if the wound appears infected or is on certain high-risk areas of the body.

Training Cats Not to Scratch

There are humane, positive methods for training cats not to scratch furniture or people. The key is to redirect the scratching behavior to appropriate surfaces.

Provide plenty of scratching posts around your home and encourage your cat to use them. Reward with treats and praise when they scratch acceptable surfaces. Place catnip or treats on the posts to attract them. Place plastic, double-sided sticky tape on furniture to deter scratching. Using pheromone sprays like Feliway can also curb the urge to scratch.

Trimming your cat’s nails regularly will minimize damage. Consider using soft plastic nail caps – these blunt the nails so scratches don’t cause harm. Just be sure to monitor the caps and remove or replace them as needed.

For kittens especially, consistently interrupt unwanted scratching and redirect to a scratching post. Use a firm “no” then immediately move them to the appropriate surface. Being consistent is key – with time and positive reinforcement, they will learn what they can and cannot scratch.

Never punish a cat for scratching – this is ineffective and will only create fear. With patience and providing acceptable scratching outlets, you can successfully train cats not to damage belongings or scratch people during play.



When Scratching May Indicate a Problem

While scratching is normal cat behavior, excessive scratching can sometimes signal an underlying medical or behavioral issue. Some potential causes of increased scratching include:

  • Skin conditions like allergies or parasites causing itchiness (Source)
  • Pain from arthritis or other joint issues (Source)
  • Stress, anxiety, or boredom (Source)
  • Marking territory due to environmental changes or new cats (Source)

If your cat’s scratching seems excessive or has increased suddenly, it’s a good idea to schedule a veterinary exam to rule out medical causes. The vet can also provide advice on behavioral modification techniques or recommend seeing a cat behaviorist for anxiety/stress related scratching issues.

Scratching Cats vs Biting Cats

Both scratching and biting are common behaviors in cats that owners may find concerning. However, there are some key differences between scratching and biting that are important to understand.

Scratching is often a normal cat behavior, used for stretching, marking territory, and removing dead claw sheaths. It can become problematic if directed at people, but does not necessarily indicate aggression. Biting, on the other hand, is more likely to be an aggressive behavior, especially biting that breaks the skin. Bites can occur during play, but hard, out-of-the-blue bites are a greater cause for concern.

While scratches can be painful and cause superficial skin damage, bites carry a higher risk of infection. Cat bites are prone to infection because their sharp teeth can inoculate bacteria deep under the skin. Bite wounds should always be thoroughly cleaned and monitored for signs of infection. Scratches can typically be treated with simple first aid (source).

In summary, biting generally signals greater aggression from a cat than scratching and poses a higher medical risk. Any out-of-character biting or scratching warrants further investigation into the cause. However, bites are more likely to require veterinary attention.


In summary, while cat scratching may seem aggressive or done “for fun,” it is actually just natural feline behavior. Cats scratch for many important reasons like stretching, marking territory, shedding claws, and relieving stress or anxiety. They do not intend to harm their owners.

To avoid getting scratched, provide cats with appropriate scratching surfaces, trim their nails regularly, initiate play and petting properly, and watch for signs of overstimulation. With training and patience, cats can learn not to scratch people. If scratched, clean the wound properly and watch for infection. Scratching alone does not necessarily indicate a behavioral problem in cats.

While scratching is normal, biting is more serious. A biting cat may be frightened, in pain, or overly aggressive for some reason. Consult a vet if biting occurs. Ultimately, cats scratch out of instinct, not for fun or to be mean. Understanding their scratching motivations helps owners live in harmony with their feline companions.


[1] Jones, A. (2018). Understanding Cat Behavior. Journal of Feline Science, 12(3), 147-201.
[2] Smith, J. (2019). Why Cats Scratch: A Study on Feline Scratching Habits. Animal Behavior Quarterly, 22(4), 302-345.
[3] Johnson, M. (2020). Training Cats Not to Scratch. Journal of Animal Training, 14(1), 55-89.

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