They do it to exercise those all-important muscles used to extend and retract claws for climbing and hunting. Scratching also helps a cat shed old, dead claw sheaths and to maintain that razor-sharp edge.
But they also do it to send a message.
And those messages cats send to one another through scratching were the subject of a recent study. This study was published a few months ago, in the Journal of Feline Medical Surgery.
One of its authors is Dr. Patrik Pageat of the Research Institute in Semiochemistry and Applied Ethology. According to their web site, the Institute is a private research organization dedicated to studying the behavior of animals, humans and their interactions. Their specific focus is on the way people and animals communicate through body chemistry, or the use of chemical signals (also known as semiochemistry).
What is Semiochemistry?
Did you know there's a whole world of social messages being sent back and forth each day all around us, wrapped in chemical secretions? For instance, semiochemistry is what a tick uses to find its victims (eww).
A tick will sit in tall weeds or bushes, waiting for a mammal to pass by. When the tick scents butyric acid - the scent that emanates from the sebaceous gland of a mammal (human, dog, cat, horse, goat, etc) - then the tick has found its prey.
Well, cats have scent glands in lots of places, including on the heart-shaped plantar pad complex on the underside of their feet.
And when a cat scratches the bark of a tree or uses a cat scratcher, a scent is released from that plantar gland. The scent is known as the Feline Interdigital Semiochemical (FIS). Experts suggest this scent is used by a cat to mark territory.
Dr. Pageat's study investigated how FIS impacted what a cat scratched, how often and for how long. In fact, his study introduced a synthetic form of the chemical to see if it had any impact on the cat's scratching behavior.
You can read more about the study in the article the Winn Feline Foundation posted on it last week.
In brief, this is their conclusion, in the study's own words:
"The results seem of interest in explaining the role of a FIS in inducing scratching behaviour on a scratching post. The semiochemical approach can modify the choice of areas selected spontaneously by cats, and could be used either as a preventive measure for a cat arriving at home or to control or change an inappropriate scratching behaviour."
This is encouraging news. Anyone who volunteers at a shelter or rescue has probably witnessed a cat being surrendered by its owner because of "behavior issues."
In fact, scratching on non-designated surfaces (e.g. on furniture and not the cat scratcher) is listed as one of the top reasons cats are surrendered to U.S. shelters, according to a 2000 study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science.
So the news about a patent for a synthetic FIS application specifically to discourage cats from inappropriate scratching comes as fantastic news. We can't wait to see this product developed and in use!!
Our thanks to Dr. Pageat and the researchers at IRSEA for pioneering a product that could potentially save hundreds - thousands - of cats.
IRSEA - about us
U.S. Patent Abstract: Feline Scratch Marking Semiochemicals
Abstract: Journal of Feline Medical Surgery, October, 2013, U.S. National Library of Medicine
Winn Feline Heath article, May 13
"Behavioral Reasons for Relinquishment of Dogs and Cats to 12 Shelters," Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 2000.