Get motivated to get started!

For some cats, the gift of sisal is enough reason to abandon previous scratching targets, such as the couch. Other kitties need more persuasion before they embrace our offerings. Scratching behavior develops instinctively, motivated by natural urges. Because of this, we need to train thoughtfully in order to channel their activities. Everyone is motivated by different things. What feels like a reward to one person may look like a punishment to someone else. It is important to know what motivates an individual before trying to change their behavior.

Imagine that your teacher wants to energize the class ahead of the big exam. To motivate the students, they promise that if the average score is higher than last year, the whole class will get a prize. 

What would make you study the hardest? Do any of these options sound lame? A good leader asks what is wanted and uses that information for everyone’s benefit. 

Free lunch for a week

Class bowling party

Bonus library time

Football tickets

Consider what fuels your cat's fire.

No one knows your cat better than you do. Think about what drives them on a daily basis, what they indulge in and what takes their day from good to great. We have broken down four basic kitty archetypes to help you identify how to attract your cat to provided scratching surfaces and keep them coming back. Remember that the drive of the day may change. An old reliable is a great place to start, but do not be afraid to try new things or combine motivators for more effect. You may even find that your kitty is motivated by something that we have not mentioned. Keep an open mind and when in doubt, consult your cat. 

Does your tiny tiger fit into one or more of these categories?

Cuddlebugs thrive on attention or physical contact.

Schedule regular one on one time by your scratching setup. Get cozy, ensure that your cat has a comfy area to lay and roll around. If your kitty enjoys grooming sessions, keep your supplies close by. Brushing is a very stimulating activity, which causes many cats to get worked up or even overstimulated. By grooming near our scratching setup, we increase the likelihood that they will take advantage of our scratching support when they need an energy outlet. Make sure that the scratcher is within easy reach for your cat.

For initial sessions, focus on making this a nice space where bonding occurs. Pet and brush your kitty as they would like, whether or not they take advantage of the scratcher. If they do take notice of it, encourage them with praise and pets. Establish comfort and positive associations. 

Even cuddlebugs need a break sometimes, just like we do. When you use attention or contact as a reward, it is especially important to read your cat’s body language and make sure that they are actively enjoying the interaction. Cats will lean into a welcomed chin scratch and reciprocate petting with bunting, a form of bonding headbutt. Watch for warning signs that your kitty is simply tolerating interaction rather than actually liking it. If your cat leans away, becomes physically tense, gets an impatient tail, or otherwise seems disinterested – stop! Remember that a reward is only rewarding if the recipient thinks so. When in doubt, take a break and see if your kitty reinitiates contact. 

Food fanatics will work for a living.

Cats excel at learning where and when they can find food because of the basic necessities of life. By crafting the right environment, we can create scratching setups that harness basic motivations. Using foraging is an excellent way to enrich your cat’s environment and take advantage of their natural instincts. 

Channel your cat’s food motivation by hiding food around their scratching stations. Plopping a bowl by the scratcher may get them in the neighborhood, but foraging encourages them to really explore and interact. Sprinkle some kibble on each level of their cat tree or scratching area to get started. Each day, vary which levels have snacks and how much is there. Watch how they incorporate cat tree inspection into their daily routine. Increase the difficulty by replacing loose kibble with foraging toys and food puzzles

Food not only attracts attention, it also adds value. Scratching serves many purposes, including acting as a method of communication. Socially important areas are prime scratching locations; think of a community bulletin board at your local coffee shop. Upgrading your scratching setups by making them sources of food increases the area’s overall importance and the value of scratching opportunities. 

Cat-drug fiends can be motivated by more than catnip.

Expand your kitty’s horizons with exciting new cat-drug options. Catnip is commonly used to attract cats to scratching surfaces, with many commercial options available pretreated with the plant or its extract. While many cats respond to the effects of catnip, even more respond to a less commonly known alternative. Silver vine is a plant that has been found to be even more effective than catnip for many cats. More than half of cats who do not respond to catnip will respond to silver vine. It is available as a potent powder or small sticks, for a less intense experience. Other alternatives include honeysuckle or valerian root, though these tend to be less potent and less popular. 

Applying your cat’s botanical of choice directly to scratching surfaces encourages interaction. Catnip and silver vine act as stimulants, getting your kitty all revved up and ready to go. That may not be enough to keep their interest, so it is helpful to take an active role and bring play into the experience. These stimulants are an excellent way to enhance other motivations, such as snacks or grooming, but it is important to monitor closely for signs of overstimulation. Focus that stimulated mind on the intended target to avoid general chaos.

Murder machines hone their skills on hunting grounds.

Cats are natural born killers with a quick start prey drive. They evolved to survive by hunting small prey throughout the day, making many short bursts of intense activity a normal routine. Providing short but frequent play sessions taps into this survival mode to keep kitties mentally and physically fit. Prey drive is an excellent motivator because of this basic programing, letting us not only meet needs but also use them to target behavior.

Many scratchers come with bonus toys, such as captive plastic balls or dangling mice, in order to draw attention and help meet these needs. However, they may be too passive to interest a hardcore hunter. With your participation and the right prey, cat trees make excellent hunting grounds. Toy preference varies cat to cat; offer choice to find out what items they prefer and rotate offerings often in order to prevent boredom. Whether your cat is on a mission to catch a feather wand, fur mouse, or the dreaded red dot, lure them to your scratching setup.

Make full use of the environment to enhance the thrill of the chase.  Posts are not just fun to scratch and climb, they provide an opportunity for peekaboo play. Tease your kitty by poking their prey out from behind the post on one side and then the other, darting it back behind the post to trigger their instinct to chase. Encourage full use of the cat tree by leading them up posts to each level and then back down again. Make sure to keep their interest by letting them catch their prey now and then, as this helps to avoid frustration. For laser play, give a kibble or two to satisfy the need to catch and end on a positive note. 

Struggling to find the motivation?

If nothing seems to catch your cat’s interest, a trip to the vet may be necessary. Total lack of motivation can be a sign of a serious medical or behavioral issue. Once your cat has been cleared of medical concerns, there are many feline behavior professionals who are more than happy to help you find what motivates your cat. Consider scheduling a behavior consultation to talk about your individual cat’s needs. Contact us for details on remote consultation services. 

Background photo Ichikawa Gakuen Old School Building by ogwrnsk via Flickr, edited.