Why Does Your Cat Attack You in Your Sleep? The Surprising Reasons Behind This Feline Behavior

Cats Use Scratching as Communication

One of the main reasons cats may scratch their owners while sleeping is as a way to communicate or get attention. Cats use scratching and biting as part of their normal social behavior and communication with other cats. When living with humans, they will often use the same methods to communicate their wants and needs (Source).

Scratching and gentle biting during interactions is a way for cats to show affection. However, they may also use more aggressive scratching or biting while an owner is sleeping to demand attention, play time, feeding, or petting. Cats are naturally most active at dawn and dusk when their prey is active, which doesn’t always align with human sleep schedules. A cat scratching its owner at night is likely trying to elicit a response and communicate that it wants something (Source).

Scents and Scent Glands

Cats have specialized scent glands in their paw pads that release pheromones when they scratch objects like furniture or carpet. This depositing of scents from the paw pads serves several purposes for cats.

One reason cats scratch is to mark their territory. By leaving their scent on surfaces around the home, they are communicating “this space belongs to me!” to other animals. Scratching and scent marking helps establish boundaries and make cats feel more secure in their environment.

Cats also use paw scratching to show affection on their owners. When a cat scratches its owner, like when kneading or climbing onto a lap, it is transferring its scent onto the person as a way to bond with them. So some scratching from cats is a sign that they feel comfortable and connected with their human family members.

In summary, scratching allows cats to deposit pheromones from special scent glands in their paws. This serves to mark territory and demonstrate affection between cats and their owners.

Source: https://www.catcarecenter.com/services/cats/blog/felines-pheromones-and-claws

Instinctual Scratching

Scratching is an innate behavior in cats that can be traced back to their wild ancestors. In the wild, cats scratch trees and other surfaces to mark their territory, strengthen their claws, and release pheromones from glands in their paws. These pheromonal secretions allow them to communicate with other cats in their area. Even domestic cats retain this instinctual drive to scratch.

Scratching serves several purposes for our pet cats. It helps keep their claws healthy by removing worn outer layers to expose sharp new claws underneath. Stretching and digging their claws into a scratchable surface also serves to condition claws and exercise cat’s feet and leg muscles. Additionally, scratching spreads a cat’s scent around their space, which makes them feel more secure in their environment.

Cats have a strong natural urge to scratch. While this behavior can be destructive in our homes, it’s important to understand that it stems from their innate instincts. Providing appropriate and attractive scratching outlets can satisfy this need while protecting our furniture.


Why Do Cats Need To Scratch? – Dutch

How to stop destructive cat scratching – The Humane Society

Boredom and Excess Energy

Indoor cats especially may scratch their owners while sleeping due to boredom, frustration, or excess energy. Since indoor cats do not have access to the stimulating outdoor environments that outdoor cats do, they can become bored more easily. A lack of enrichment and activity can lead to pent up energy and stress that gets taken out on owners.

It’s important for cat owners to provide plenty of enrichment activities to stave off boredom. This includes interactive toys that engage a cat’s natural hunting instincts, like feather wands, puzzle feeders, and treat balls. Providing scratching posts, cat trees, and perches gives cats appropriate outlets to scratch and climb. Rotating toys helps keep cats interested. Daily play sessions are also recommended to help cats release energy.

According to PetPlace (source), “Get a Scratching Post. Cats will use a cat scratching post for a variety of reasons. One is to help shed the outer layers of their nails.” Having scratching posts available gives cats an approved place to scratch instead of people.

Anxiety and Stress

Scratching can sometimes be a compulsive behavior when a cat is feeling anxious or stressed. Identifying and addressing the source of your cat’s stress is the key to curbing this behavior. According to research by Ealing Vets and Cat Scratching, cats often scratch themselves excessively when stressed as a self-soothing mechanism.

Common stressors that can cause anxious scratching include changes in their environment or routine, conflict with other pets, lack of stimulation, or negative interactions. Creating a calming environment and sticking to a regular routine can help reduce scratching from stress. Using pheromone diffusers, providing scratching posts, and giving your cat access to high perches or hiding spots also allows them to self-soothe appropriately.

If your cat’s scratching seems abnormally excessive, consult your veterinarian to identify and address the root cause. With some adjustments and patience, you can help alleviate your cat’s stress.

Attention-Seeking Behavior

One of the most common reasons for a cat to scratch their sleeping owner is to get attention. Cats are very social animals and crave interaction with their owners. If a cat feels they are not getting enough playtime, pets, or quality time with their human, they may resort to problematic attention-seeking behaviors like scratching. As frustrating as it can be to get woken up by cat scratches, it’s important not to scold or punish a cat for this behavior. Doing so will only reinforce the behavior by giving the cat the reaction they wanted. Similarly, comforting or petting the cat after scratching will also encourage the behavior. The best course of action is to completely ignore the cat if they scratch you while sleeping. This teaches the cat that scratching does not result in any rewarding attention from their owner.


Medical Causes

Before assuming a scratching cat is misbehaving, it’s important to rule out any underlying medical issues that could be causing discomfort. Some medical causes for increased scratching include:

Parasites like fleas or mites – parasites can cause severe itching and irritation that leads to excessive scratching. Flea allergy dermatitis is particularly common.

Allergies – just like humans, cats can develop allergies to things like food, plants, or materials that cause itchy skin.[1]

Skin infections or conditions – bacterial or fungal skin infections, hormonal imbalances, and other dermatological issues can also make a cat scratch more.

Orthopedic pain – cats may scratch due to pain or arthritis in joints or muscles.

Stress/anxiety – chronic stress can cause neurodermatitis and obsessive scratching.

Since excessive scratching can be a sign of an underlying medical problem, it’s recommended to have your vet examine your cat if scratching is new or excessive. The vet can check for parasites, skin conditions, pain, and other issues to determine if there’s a medical cause for the scratching behavior.

Providing Appropriate Outlets

One of the best ways to curb inappropriate scratching is to provide your cat with suitable outlets for their natural scratching instinct. Having scratching posts, cat trees, scratch pads, and other designated scratching spots available around your home allows your cat to satisfy their urge to scratch without damaging your furniture or skin.

Make sure the scratching posts and pads are made of materials cats enjoy scratching, like sisal, corrugated cardboard, or wood. Place them in areas your cat already likes to scratch. You can encourage your cat to use their new scratching spots by rewarding them with treats when they use them or rubbing catnip on the posts.

Vertical scratching posts like the SmartCat Ultimate Scratching Post [1] allow cats to fully stretch and scratch. Cat trees with built-in scratching surfaces are also excellent options, like those available on Amazon [2]. Scratch pads on the floor or mounted on walls give cats a convenient scratching surface around the house.

Providing appropriate scratching outlets helps satisfy your cat’s instincts, redirects them from furniture and skin, and minimizes conflicts.

Training and Deterrents

Use positive reinforcement and deterrents like double-sided tape to redirect scratching behavior. Never physically punish cats. When they scratch furniture, make a loud noise to interrupt them. Then immediately reward them with a treat when they stop scratching. This helps them associate not scratching with rewards.

Place sticky double-sided tape on furniture you don’t want scratched. Cats dislike the stickiness on their paws. You can also try placing aluminum foil or plastic carpet protectors upside down on surfaces. The texture deters scratching. Just be sure to provide acceptable scratching posts so they have an outlet.

Try spraying furniture with citrus or lemon scents, which cats dislike. Place fresh citrus peels on surfaces. Or use products like Feliway to help relieve stress and curb scratching. Always reinforce good behavior, never punish cats physically.

When to Seek Help

Despite an owner’s best efforts to provide suitable places for scratching and deter unwanted scratching, some cats may continue to repeatedly scratch themselves or people. Persistent scratching can indicate an underlying medical condition or behavioral issue that requires professional attention.

Some signs that it’s time to seek help from a veterinarian include hair loss, sores, scabs or persistent skin irritation in areas the cat scratches. A vet can diagnose and treat any infections or skin conditions that may be causing discomfort and provoking scratching. Testing may be recommended to check for parasites, allergies or other medical problems leading to itchiness.

If medical causes are ruled out, the next step is consulting an animal behaviorist. A certified expert can observe the cat’s environment and daily routine to identify factors contributing to anxiety, boredom or stress that manifest in excessive scratching. They can suggest adjustments and specialized training to curb undesirable scratching habits.

With patience and professional guidance, the underlying motivation for problematic scratching can usually be uncovered and resolved, restoring peace within the home.

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