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Teach cat to claw with care

With one major exception, destructive behavior in cats is uncommon. Adult cats do not chew like dogs, although they may nibble at a few houseplants from time to time, and damage to clothes, furniture, books, etc., as a result of frustration or boredom is rare.

The only potentially destructive activity exhibited by cats is clawing. Cats scratch and claw objects for several reasons: to keep their nails sharp and free of debris; to stretch and tone muscles; and to place their scent at various locations within their territories. They also appear to enjoy the activity immensely.

Outdoors, cats claw upright objects like trees and fence posts. Indoors, wood paneling, carpets and upholstered furniture often become substitutes. Damage ranges from minor to severe.

Most cats use a single object or location over and over again. This behavior allows owners to teach their kittens to use scratching posts. These posts work best if covered with carpet or upholstery material for which the animal has shown a preference and if positioned near a sofa, chair, etc., that is being clawed. Placing catnip on the post also helps, as does spraying the furniture with pet repellent. Citrus odors are particularly distasteful to cats.

A veterinary procedure frequently done on cats to eliminate the potential for damage from scratching is known as "declawing." Many people object to the whole matter of declawing. They feel it is cruel and unnatural. However, many cat owners who are unwilling or unable to teach their cats to use a scratching post find the resulting damage to their furniture intolerable. Too often their pets become strictly outdoor cats or are taken to local animal shelters. In either case, these cats' lives are shortened considerably.

Every effort should be made to encourage your cat to use a scratching post. A cat's claws are extremely important for climbing and defense. To remove the claws of a cat allowed to go outside would place that animal at great risk.

If, however, your strictly indoor cat refuses to use its scratching post, consider declawing. It is a relatively quick procedure requiring anesthesia and a short stay in the hospital. Very young cats are running and playing normally after three or four days. Adult cats, especially those that are overweight, may feel tenderness in their paws for several weeks.

In addition, kittens adjust to the loss of their claws quickly, learning to jump up and hold onto things by wrapping their front legs tightly around the object.

Complications from the declawing procedure are few, particularly if the terminal bone in each toe (with the nail attached) is completely removed surgically. If only the nail is removed, there is a slight chance of regrowth. Most owners are advised to use shredded newspaper, rather than cat litter, in their pet's litter pan for a week to minimize the possibility of infection if litter gets into the wounds.

Karen Ann Wilson is a free-lance writer.