Cats are complex creatures and are not always suited to the life we expect them to lead. Destructive behaviour, such as scratching furniture, chewing your belongings, digging up your plants or stealing food, can happen for a range of reasons including attention seeking, creating his own entertainment, or expressing anxiety.
Cats are naturally very active animals. For example, feral domestic cats spend on average 8 hours hunting every day and therefore spend a lot of their mental and physical energy engaged in eating enough food to survive. In contrast, pet cats are normally given food in a bowl and consequently often spend very little time and energy engaged in feeding. Because hunting is such an important activity for cats, those that have free access to the outdoors often hunt even though they also get fed by the owner. Cats that don’t go outside or have restricted access to the outside are therefore unable to show their full range of normal behaviours and may become inactive and depressed, or show signs of frustration. Cats may become destructive as a result of this frustration. Reacting to your cat’s destructive behaviour by chasing him, squirting him with water or distracting him with a toy or food might temporarily stop his behaviour. However, it may actually be reinforcing to a frustrated cat as he could learn that if he is destructive you engage in an even more exciting game with him. In cats where this learning occurs, their destructive behaviour can become a strategy for gaining the owner’s attention. In order to prevent cats becoming frustrated it is important that owners of indoor cats keep their cat’s environment as interesting and as stimulating as possible. To do this they need to provide opportunities for the cat to do all the things that he would do outside, such as encouraging play, maximizing the use of 3-Dimensional space, and making them ‘work’ for their food.
Play is a great way of using up a cat’s energy and you should encourage your cat to use their natural hunting instincts by providing toys that encourage stalking and chasing behaviour. Objects that are small, the size of normal cat prey, have a complex texture and that move will be of most interest to cats. Independent play is good as it means that a cat can be entertained when you are out or busy. You should also play with your cat as much as possible, for example with ‘fishing-rod’ toys. Toys should be changed regularly to keep them exciting. However, you should not play with your cat using your feet or hands as this may encourage inappropriate play, where the cat uses his teeth and claws on the owner, causing injury. You can also make your cat ‘work’ for his food. Giving cats their dried food in puzzle feeders instead of in bowls means that they have to work to get the food out. These can be bought, or you can make your own by cutting holes in a small plastic drinks bottle and filling it with dried food. As the cat taps the bottle across the floor bits of food drop out. Alternatively, you can hide bits of food inside scrunched up pieces of paper hidden around the house that the cat then has to search for and then manipulate to get to the food. To get your cat used to this idea start by placing the dry food just next to the bowl and gradually increase the distance of the food from the bowl until it is eventually scattered throughout the house. Making a cat work for his food will mean that much more of his time will be spent ‘hunting’ for his food, and then eating it, rather than just eating straight from a bowl. This will mean that he has less time, and less motivation, to be destructive.Cats also love to make use of the height of their environment, so make your cat’s environment as exciting and complex as possible, for example by providing shelves at different levels that he can jump onto. Most cats enjoy climbing and jumping and will spend a lot of time on elevated areas, which they use as vantage points from which to survey their surroundings. Being able to escape to a high place is especially important for cats in households containing more than one cat. Constructions ranging from simple scratching posts with a shelf to complex structures with several shelves, beds and scratching posts will satisfy a cat’s desire to climb, jump, scratch and rest. Scratching posts must be tall enough to allow the cat to stretch fully and be steady enough not to fall over when your cat leans into it. Cats also like to explore and hide so giving them boxes, even cardboard ones, may provide extra stimulation and comfort.
Scratching is a normal cat behaviour and is used for both communication and keeping nails and muscles healthy. However, the reason for a cat scratching the furniture, or performing other destructive behaviours, might be quite complex and may include anxiety about the environment. Therefore, simply providing a more stimulating environment might not be enough to stop a cat from scratching and further help may need to be sought from a professional to stop destructive behaviour.
Punishing a cat for destructive behaviour will not necessarily stop the behaviour as it does nothing to change the cat’s motivation to perform the behaviour in the first place. Punishment might also damage your relationship with your cat and make him anxious about your presence. On the other hand some types of punishment might even be rewarding for the cat, for example a bored cat might find it fun to be chased around the house or sprayed with water! Similarly, other techniques such as distracting a cat with a toy or food may only reward the destructive behaviour and teach the cat that being destructive is a good thing!