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Why does my cat tear at the fabric of my furniture?:

The first thought is that our cats are sharpening their claws, but this is not true in the sense of sharpening a knife. Instead, the cat is removing the outer layer, or sheath, of the claw to reveal the new, sharp claw underneath. Essentially, the outer claw layer is shed. Sometime we'll find what looks like a claw and worry that our cat has accidently torn out its claw. But that is not what has happened -- we have found the outer claw layer that was ready to come off.

Cats don't do this "stropping" (as it is called) with the hind feet. They chew off the outer layers of the hind claws.

Another function of the stropping is the exercising and strengthening of the retraction and protrusion apparatus of the claws to keep them in prime condition.

A third function is that of scent-marking. The cat has scent glands on the underside of the front paws. During stropping, these glands release a tiny bit of scent, depositing the cat's personal signature. This is why furniture that we sit in the most tends to get the most "attention". Our cats are responding to our personal fragrance and adding their own to it. And this is why scratching posts are sometimes ignored.

Also, if a cat has already established a favorite location for stropping, it can be very difficult to get him or her to change the location.

[Aside from the Editor: When I first set up my furniture in my living room, I waited until my cat picked a couple of spots that she liked for stropping, and I bought scratching "posts" and put them right in front of the furniture. Fortunately, I have a casual living room so the scratching posts don't look too out of place. Also, I purchased "posts" that were large (12 inch diameter) cylinders covered with this carpet that my cat cannot resist. The brand was called Claw-Tuff and I don't know if they can still be bought. My cat has really loves these Claw-Tuffs and has left my furniture alone.]

Source: Catwatching, by Desmond Morris, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1986, pp. 21-23.