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I have never had pets, but recently a friend of mine was in serious trouble and asked me to care for her cat.

I did my best to accommodate it as well as I could. The house is vast, has a beautiful garden around it, and as suggested I bought a big cat tree, toys, treats. The cat has plenty of food, water is refreshed regularly, and I change both litter boxes every few days. The cat gets plenty of play time both with me and my flatmates, and is free to cuddle with any of us at any time. It is even allowed by one of my flatmates to sleep in bed with him at night, although it has a dedicated shelter and all doors are always open, so it is free to circulate around the house as much as it wants.

We essentially haven't constrained its behaviour in any way. It is free to do whatever it pleases, except scratching the sofa. However, since it was here, we had no way whatsoever to prevent him from doing that.

I will be honest: reading on the internet how to handle a cat is frustrating. It seems like no form of negative reinforcement will ever work. Every blog post, article or forum question I found seems to imply that good behaviour should be encouraged instead.

I bought scratch posts. I wrapped planks of wood in cloth and left them around the house. I put treats in the right scratching places. I went as far as scratching the posts myself in front of it, proposing treats as a reward for it scratching too. No dice. Delicately placing its paws on the scratching post only made it angry.

I wrapped the couch in expendable blankets and covers. It still finds a way to remove them, ignoring the scratching posts right next to the couch, and scratch under the blankets instead.

I am frustrated, and I am exhausted. I am not significantly attached to that couch, or any other thing in the house, but I cannot stand the principle that my life should now revolve around a cat, without me being able to put any condition whatsoever on its behaviour. I want to be a good friend, but I didn't choose to be a cat owner, so I am lacking that sort of Stockholm Syndrome some of my cat-owning friends display towards their pets.

What do I do to save my couch, calm my nerves, and make that damn cat happy?

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  • I've had luck with negative reinforcement. But it only works when I'm there. They never jump up on the counter when I'm home, but they'll be up there sometimes when I get home. Mine eventually stopped scratching everything except rugs, and I left it at that. At SE if you talk about being mean to cats you'll just get DVs, so... – Mazura Dec 30 '20 at 23:28
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    Pedantically, negative reinforcement and positive punishment are not the same. – shoover Jan 1 at 0:31
  • On a side note, my cat really likes cheap, plasticky Yoga mats. – AndreKR Jan 2 at 8:42
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I totally understand your frustration. Cats are very independent, complex creatures. I imagine your cat is very happy, you’re providing it everything I would suggest and then some. Seriously, give yourself some kudos for that. I have a few thoughts that may help:

Firstly, cat ownership does require a certain level of “letting go”. When I got my cat, I was fully prepared for dealing with the difficulties of owning a cat, but it sounds like you entered cat ownership a little more reluctantly. I think it’s very cool that you’re helping your friend, but that also adds another level of pressure. All things considered, you’re doing good things for the cat, but should now turn your attention to yourself.

Your life doesn’t need to revolve around the cat, bad behavior or not. Realign your expectations of pet ownership and forgive yourself for getting frustrated. Cat ownership does have a level of responsibility and maintenance, but they can also be great friends. You have flatmates that I’m sure you consider friends, but do they sometimes do something that just drives you nuts? The cat is the same way. It’s not Stockholm Syndrome. It’s forming a friendship, or bond. It will come with time if you let it.

Back to the couch! I do have a few more ideas you can try. The cat is just practicing its natural instincts. Like a squirrel has to chew wood to keep its teeth shaved down, cats need scratch to maintain their claws. They are not scratching out of spite or because they’re upset. They may, however, prefer whatever material your couch is made of most. My cat hates cardboard scratchers and will only use those rope wrapped poles. See if you can find a scratch post with a similar texture as the couch, place it next to the couch, and encourage the cat to use that by adding catnip or treats to the post.

Alternatively, there are cat-repellent sprays and scents you can apply to the couch. I have a friend who’s cat always jumped on their screens, tearing them. They started spraying the screens with THIS spray, and after a month or so, the cat learned not to jump on the screens. Add this to your couch and see if it helps.

You are correct that cats respond better to positive feedback. I encourage you to keep that mindset, but you can still tell a cat no. For my cat, if he’s doing something he shouldn’t, I make a ssst noise to get his attention off his task and to me instead, and then say “no” and move him. You can do the same. Make a noise to get the cat to look at you, and say “no” while you remove them from the couch. Then place the cat on/near a scratch board or whatever to complete their scratching. No need to force them. Make it a regular habit of removing the cat when you catch it scratching, and have your flatmates do the same. This could take a lot of time before the cat learns, but they’re pretty smart critters.

I know this is a lot! But I hope something in here helps. Just remember - the cat can be your friend, and learning takes time and patience for both sides.

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    Catnip deserves to be bolded here. Some cats don't have the gene for it (literally) but it's not expensive and if this cat does respond to it then you can get a much stronger response than from other things. – user3067860 Dec 31 '20 at 2:37
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You're going in the right direction, with your efforts to make the couch unappealing, and provide scratchers as alternatives. You just need to experiment a bit more to discover the right combination of things to discourage it from the couch and encourage it to the scratchers.

  • Since the blankets aren't working, try a different method to discourage the cat. Put double sided tape on the area the cat likes to scratch, or use a spray that's designed to smell bad to cats. I've also heard of using aluminum foil as cats seem to dislike the noise it makes.
  • Don't just place the scratcher near the couch. Physically block the area the cat likes to scratch with a scratcher.
  • Keep the cat's claws trimmed as much as you can. The more blunt its claws are, the less damage it can do while you're still trying to figure out what works.
  • Try to find a scratcher the cat really likes. Ask the previous owner if they know of any scratchers the cat likes. Experiment with a wide variety of scratchers, of various materials, and different forms that accommodate scratching in different positions such as lying down or reaching up high.

Some tips on trying out scratchers:

From personal experience, sometimes cats seem to have different preferences when it comes to scratchers than when it comes to furniture, so don't rule out scratchers that you might think are too dissimilar from your furniture. For example, cats might reach up to scratch your furniture, but still prefer floor scratchers.

I've also had alot of success with the destructible cardboard scratchers. I think many cats really tend to like those because they like the feeling of really destroying something. But of course, every cat has its own preferences, so if those don't seem to appeal either, just keep trying until you find the one it really likes.

Sometimes it takes a while for the cat to figure out the scratchers too, so don't take the scratchers it doesn't seem interested in away too quickly. It took my cat months to realize he really likes the cardboard scratchers, but now he's really good about scratching them.

Regarding negative reinforcement:

The reason why people say to not use it is that usually it just doesn't work. The cat will continue to do what it wants when you're not there. You'll get mad when you inevitably discover the cat is still doing what it wants, and the cat might decide it doesn't like you as much for yelling or spraying it or whatever. That is why most advice you read will talk about trying to rearrange things so the cat will naturally be inclined to do what you want it to. So don't think of "no negative reinforcement" as "tying your hands," but rather it's just saving you from wasted effort and frustration.

There is one exception, which is if the cat is doing a behavior only when you're around. For example, the cat is jumping up on the kitchen counter to steal food when you're preparing meals. But in these cases, try to use as little negative reinforcement as necessary. Like in the example earlier, you don't need to yell or spray it. All you need to do pick the cat up and put it back on the floor. This is technically negative reinforcement, though it's so minimal it might not seem that way, but the cat will still give up the behavior quite quickly as long as you're consistent.

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    I agree with the point regarding a scratcher the cat likes. We tried multiple scratching posts (carpet and cardboard) yet our cat still insisted on using the rug and couch. We just purchased a multi-level carpeted climber and she loves that, the scratching of the rug mostly stopped. Also agree that double sided tape can help. – David Waterworth Dec 31 '20 at 3:45
  • Definitely love this answer... you can find something the cat likes better, and try the tape! Some cats really hate that and it can be perfect if you use enough. Don't forget to try actual wood as a scratching post, as well - cheap and easy. I just bolted lumber together for my cats because I thought wood seemed more natural ( haven't seen a lot of carpeted trees, just saying ;) ) and they liked it and it lasted forever. They also liked pet store horizontal cardboard ones, and destroying paper towel rolls... just keep trying :-) – Mike M Dec 31 '20 at 3:56
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  1. Make very sure the cat has a legal scratcher they know how to scratch. Every cat knows how to scratch a rope wrapped pole as long as the pole is as high as the cat standing; some cats can do with less but not too willingly. The cat must scratch regularly and the only question is what to scratch.

  2. Reward the cat for "correct scratching" every time you notice an honest attempt. Some cats sometimes "correct scratch" to reward an influential human for doing for them something they love (if the human did it immediately before or during the "correct scratching"); if you notice that happening, reward them back by looking particularly happy and granting them a wish.

  3. Take half a lemon and slide it along the damaged parts of the couch, plus along every corner (vertical edge) of the couch, plus along the corners of the next most similar piece to the furniture to the couch that you may have (from the perspective of texture). No need to bathe your furniture in juice; just a faint smell of pretty much any citrus fruit will likely take away all the pleasure from scratching it for at least a week.

  4. The lemon smell is even more sinister if the cat didn't see you applying the fruit.

  5. Disturb the cat whenever you notice they are actively considering to scratch your couch again. However, make sure that the cat isn't doing this primarily to attract your attention or as an act of revenge for the lemon coating (supposing they figured out your involvement). If you must physically remove or punish them, consider a passive kind of punishment such as shutting out the cat for a short while into a comparatively boring environment, rather than letting them win a chase game over you. Fortunately, citrus smell is so disgusting that the cat will usually make the correct decision without needing any additional help from you.

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How damaged is your couch now? If it needs a re-cover then cut the old cladding off, and fit that fabric to your existing cat scratch posts. Choose some significantly different fabric to reclad the rear/sides/front of your couch and keep the couch elsewhere like a garage while doing the work.

This will give the cat time with the couch-fabric covered scratcher, and without the couch around.

When the freshly covered couch comes back in, keep a couple squirt bottles of water handy to actively discourage scratching on the couch. Use them only at the right time but don't hesitate to use them.

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    +1 for the idea "in worst case", but the water spray would only shift the problem to times, when the cat is unsupervised... – Allerleirauh Jan 2 at 11:49
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We had the same situation. The cat has a mind of its own and preferences as to what it prefers to scratch.

There is a guy on TV in a show called 'cat from hell' who works miracles.

Try to track him or his web site down and ask someone that actually gets results from cats.

I considered our couch getting shredded on the side of the end to be a small price to pay for the unconditional love our cat gave us. Besides, he cleaned out all the annoying crickets in the basement as well as any rodents that might have shown up which we did not see. I would say he earned his keep and we ignored the couch shredding.

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    Did you contacted the "guy from TV"? How did it work? And maybe you should add an area, or channel where to find this TV show, because here are people all around the world asking and answering questions... – Allerleirauh Jan 2 at 11:52
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    Jackson Galaxy is probably who you are thinking of. – felicia Jan 2 at 20:20
  • @felicia -- yes jackson galaxy resonates my neurons so pretty sure he was the one. – post as a guest Jan 3 at 2:21
  • @Allerleirauh - we did not contact him. my wife and I just enjoyed watching the show occasionally. We let our cat shred away because as I noted above our cat more than earned his keep with the other things he did not to mention the unconditional love he provided us. – post as a guest Jan 3 at 2:22
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Cardboard, cardboard and more cardboard. And then some more cardboard. The flat cardboard scratchers are inexpensive and cats love them. Buy the really large size so the cat can sit on it as well as scratch. Sprinkle catnip all over and as cat gets happy reward with treats. Then when the cat uses it to scratch again reward with treats. I have an older cat and a kitten and scratchers in the bathroom, bedroom, two in the living room and two in the kitchen, plus the round racetrack that has a piece in the middle. Make it easy for the cat to exercise this normal behavior by providing the path of least resistance. A single, quick squirt with a water bottle can help deter cat from sofa - and by having alternate outlets (everywhere) the behavior should change. But. A cat is a cat so patience is necessary.

Also, my kitten is still too squirmy for me to feel comfortable trimming his claws - a trip to the vet every 3-4 weeks for a professional nail trim is totally worth the $15 to keep his 10 tiny razors in check (and back claws, too! Again, path of least resistance makes your life easier and the cat healthy.

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