The usual answer is that the animal is sharpening its claws. This is true, but not in the way most people imagine. They envisage a sharpening-up of blunted points rather in the manner of humans improving the condition of blunted knives. But what really occurs is the stripping-off the old, worn-out claw heaths to reveal glistening new claws beneath. It is more like the shedding of a snake’s skin than the sharpening of a kitchen knife. Sometimes, when people run their hands over the place where the cat has been tearing at the furniture, they find what they think is a ripped-out claw and they then fear that was ready to be discarded.
Cats do not employ these powerful ‘stropping’ actions with the hind feet, Instead they use their teeth to chew off the old outer casings from the hind claws.
A second important function of the stropping with the front feet is the exercising and strengthening of the retraction and protrusion apparatus of the claws, so vital in catching prey, fighting rivals and climbing.
A third important function, not suspected by most people, is that of scent-marking. There are scent glands on the underside of the cat’s front paws and these are rubbed vigorously against the fabric of the furniture being clawed. The rhythmic stropping, left paw, right paw, squeezes cent on to the surface of the cloth and rubs it in, depositing the cat’s personal signature on the furniture. This is why it is always your favourite chair which seems to suffer most attention, because the cat is responding to your own personal fragrance (pheromones) and adding to it. Some people buy an expensive scratching-post from a pet shop, carefully impregnated with catnip to make it more appealing, and are bitterly disappointed when the cat quickly ignores it and returns to stropping the furniture. Hanging an old sweat-shirt over the scratching-post might be helpful the problem, but if a cat has already established a particular chair or a special part of the house as its ‘stropping spot’, it is extremely hard to altar the habit.
In desperation, some cat-owners resort to the extremely cruel practice of having their pets de-clawed. Apart from the extreme physical pain this indeed inflicts, it is also detrimental and psychologically damaging to the cat and puts the cat at a very serious disadvantage in all climbing pursuits, hunting activities and feline social relationships. A Cat without its claws is not a true Cat, but just an empty shell of a Cat.