Home Ec

Home Ec: How to Protect Your Furniture From Pets

by Grace Bonney

One of my major design struggles is balancing my love of upholstered anything with my love of animals. Whether it’s Turk scratching up the side of our sofa or Hope tracking in dirt or carrying her food onto the chair, we’re always dealing with some sort of upholstery clean-up. Even if your home doesn’t include pets or children, regular use of any upholstered furniture will require cleaning and touch-ups at some point. I try to prevent anything major with semi-regular cleaning, but for today’s Home Ec post I wanted to share a guide to cleaning upholstered furniture and protecting it from pets. xo, grace

*Click here for even more in-depth pet-proofing ideas!

This post and the Home Ec section are brought to you by Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day. Visit the Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Home-Grown Inspiration section featuring 20 DIYs, including seven from Design*Sponge!

COTTON & LINEN: Let's start with materials before diving into pets. Cotton and linen are some of the most common upholstery fabrics and can be the toughest to protect (from animals, especially). If you have slipcovers, you can machine wash them on a gentle setting. Be sure to follow the tag instructions. Linen/cotton blends can often be machine washed, but pure linen slipcovers should be dry cleaned. I clean ours twice a year. In between I spot clean with a dry cloth first, followed by a damp towel. Regular dust-busting (every other week or so) can help prevent food or dirt particles from being embedded into the fabric. (Photo from Sisse's home)
LEATHER: Leather can be more forgiving of pet hair and stains, but it still needs to be cared for properly. Vacuum first (with a brush attachment) and then dust leather furniture with a soft, damp cloth to remove easy surface stains. Be sure to keep your leather from being too close to heaters and fireplaces - the heat can dry out and crack the leather. You can use a mild soap and water mixture for tougher stains, but be sure to test on a noticeable patch first. (Photo from Corbin's home)
VELVET: Velvet is one of the best fabrics for cats, because they CAN'T get their claws looped inside the fibers (velvet is a soft pile, not a looped structure like linen or cotton). For velvet, you'll want to use your vacuum's brush attachment to regularly keep it clean. Most velvets can be washed in cold water and air-dried, but be sure to consult your tag first. Never iron your velvet covers, though! The compression can crush the velvet fibers and make it appear discolored. (Photo from Erin's home)
WOOL: I find wool the trickiest fabric to clean, because it truly requires dry cleaning to get thoroughly clean (once a year, ideally). For stains that need to be immediately cleaned, you can dilute a wool-safe detergent (like Woolite) and apply in small amounts with a soft cloth. Be sure not to overly wet the fabric, because shrinking or discoloration can occur. (Photo from Camilla's home)
LABELS: Understanding your furniture label is important. The basics you need to know for furniture are as follows: X (Vacuum only) - S (Spot-clean with a solvent cleaner only, no water) - S-W (Spot-clean with a water based cleaner or foam only) - W (Spot-clean with a mild soap, upholstery shampoo or detergent). (Photo by MK2010)
CATS: Let's talk about protecting upholstery from cats. The biggest issue here is scratching. First and foremost - NEVER de-claw your cat. It is incredibly painful for them and can cause major behavioral issues down the line. You can, however, keep your cat's nails trimmed or try a temporary claw covering like these. I've tried them successfully but they don't work for every cat. To deter them further, provide a scratching alternative, like this sisal rope-covered pipe or a scratching pad. (From Amy's former Brooklyn home) . If you want to plan to deter scratching further, try velvet upholstery instead of cotton, linen or wool. The non-looped structure makes it nearly impossible for cats to pull.
CATS & DOGS: The easiest way to deter your pets from damaging upholstery is to provide an alternative. Most pets like things that smell like their owners, so provide them with a comfortable pet bed (you may need to test a few styles to discover what they like; Hope loves a bed that's too small with high sides) and place an item of your clothing in there to start. A dirty sweater, a (dry) used towel - anything that has your scent will encourage them to nest there.
In addition to soft pet beds, most cats like to get some height, too. Providing them with some sort of raised shelf, walkway or cat tree is the easiest way to give them their OWN space, so they won't be tempted to damage yours. (Image from the Uhuru home tour)
Another option is to cover or upholster the bottom seat of any furniture in a fabric that's easier to clean or toss in the washer. An old Hudson Bay blanket, a striped wool throw- anything that's sturdy enough to be cleaned and shaken-out regularly works well. Or, try upholstering the seat cushions in something you can easily un-zip and wash (more regularly than the arms and back). (Photo from Tyler and Brendan's home)
Last, but not least, try to remember when accidents happen that our pets are part of our family. We make mistakes, spill things and occasionally leave stains, too, so try to remember that furniture can be cleaned, covered or replaced- pets are living and loving parts of our household that will be with us for (hopefully) a very long time. (Photo from Jason and Stephanie's home)

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  • Luckily, my pets are not too hard on my furnishings. My cat will stop clawing anything if you say her name in a certain tone. if I get the money to redecorate, I’ll made sure to choose more pet-friendly options next go around.

  • I love this post and will be on a cleaning spree this weekend! Thanks for providing great info about furniture care with loving messages about pet care. I really appreciated your comments about de-clawing and reminder that pets are more important than furniture :)

  • How about microfiber? My cats puked on my couch and I can’t figure out how to get the stain out. I tried dry-brushing it, maybe soap and water?

  • Very informative article. Love my shepherd–hate the floating hair even tho she is combed, brushed and vacuumed daily– she sheds, and so do I. BUT she adds so much to our days. Thanks for info on fabrics. Womans Day and Family Circle were 5 cents when I began collecting info.

  • I’ve heard it said that you can either have cats or a nice couch — I decided on cats. Thanks so much for reminding people what’s really important in life. That being said — I’ll never buy another couch that doesn’t come with a washable slipcover!

    • CA

      I feel your pain. Between Turk and Hope, our couch doesn’t stand a chance of being in perfect condition for long. But hey, every time I snuggle with one of them I’m reminded that fabric is just fabric. Pets are family and they’re forever. :)


  • Even without any pets, our white cotton slipcovers manage to get stained between machine washing them a few times a year. What kind of cleaner do you use for the in-between spot cleaning?

    • hi kristina

      i use nature’s miracle for pretty much everything pet related. it even gets out food stains. but you have to be sure it’s ok for your fabric, so test on a small patch first. i’ve also used a mix of dish soap and warm water, too.


  • THANK YOU for discouraging the declawing of cats. Like you said it’s very painful and unnecessary. ‘Stuff’ should never be more important than a living breathing creature.

  • I have had good luck with double-sided sticky tape to prevent scratching on upholstery and wood. You can find larger format tape made specifically for that purpose. Often I can take it down after a training period and my cat doesn’t go back to that spot.

    In addition to Nature’s Miracle, I have used Oxyclean on upholstery with success.

  • My Mom used to warned us all the time about not to bring home abandoned dogs and cats just because of her heavy load on cleaning the house, especially with all the furniture and stuff. This blog is a real life savior. Very helpful with a lot of usable detail. Can’t wait to bring in new pets and show Mom this genius tips.

  • Very timely list!! As a cat owner, my biggest issues are a frayed sofa (soft, ribbed cotton) and a constantly hairy dining table because she’s recently decided it’s her favorite place to sleep! I do have the pet bed but maybe adding a towel will sweeten the deal? And I LOVE the suggestion of a pet tree — she used to be an outdoor cat so this makes perfect sense. I’m a velvet lover anyway so will consider for future purchases. And finally — I die over the cloud wall hanging in Camilla’s home.

  • Thanks for the guide, especially to different kinds of materials. Not all of my couches are cotton, after all! I never thought I’d be so worried about upholstery cleaning, but then, I never thought I’d have such a messy dog. I definitely want my furniture to last as long as possible, so I’ll be keeping your tips in mind!

  • For a lot of dogs, there’s nothing better than a romp in the back yard — especially when it’s muddy! To cut down on the dirt and mud they track inside the house, keep an old towel near the door and quickly wipe their feet before they come in. Most dogs will quickly learn the routine and stop for the obligatory foot rub.

  • I find my cats will use a scratching post more than the furniture only if it is tall and has a stable base so they can really stretch up and go at it. After they pretty much ignored the typical inexpensive posts I bought, I finally found one called the Ultimate Scratching Post which is 32″ tall and now they use that most of the time instead of the furniture. How I wish I’d had it BEFORE I bought the new couch! I put catnip on the post regularly to attract their attention as well.

  • My wife and I just bought a dog for our daughters. I really appreciated this post because I want to make sure to protect our furniture so that it will always look nice. I know that most of our furniture has slipcovers, but I just hadn’t thought of having them machine washed, so that is great advice. Thanks!

  • I love this post! Can I please request a follow up post, with more ideas of how to balance pets with a home that’s beautiful and clean? Maybe from different pet veteran designers?