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How to Shave a Cat (and Keep Him Calm) in an Emergency

My Savannah got into trouble with a candle late at night, so we turned to coercion-free and positive-based methods to remove the wax.

Marilyn Krieger  |  Feb 5th 2016


“Don’t panic!” This was the first thing I blurted out to my boyfriend, George — taking the advice of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — as our hysterical houseguest, followed by my panicked cat, burst into the bedroom at 3 a.m. Our insomniac friend had made herself a cup of tea and lit a candle. Although we aren’t sure how it happened, we knew what did happen. Sudan, my 20-pound Savannah cat, knocked the candle over. A copious amount of wax now covered the back of his head, neck, and right ear. Thankfully, he wasn’t burned, but he was frightened.

Sudan, before the Wax Incident.

Sudan, before the wax Incident. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Now what?

Panicking would not remove hardened wax from a squirming cat’s head. Neither would toxic solvents. The wax was so thick it couldn’t be easily cut or wiped out of his fur. Leaving it wasn’t an option either — he would ultimately ingest it. The only solution was to shave him. Sudan needed a buzz cut. And, luckily, I had the right tool for the job — a super pocket pro compact cat and dog clipper.

Super pocket pro clippers -- perfect for the job at hand

Super pocket pro clippers — perfect for the job at hand. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Although these clippers are designed for cats and dogs, they aren’t particularly animal friendly. They buzz and vibrate — two unfriendly attributes that are especially scary to a sensitive kitty such as Sudan.

The wax-removing process needed to be easy and anxiety free for everyone — Sudan, George, and me. This was an opportunity for me, a certified cat behavior consultant, to put into action what I advise others, using positive-based and force-free methods. Minimally, Sudan’s reactions when exposed to the sound, vibration, and feel of the clippers needed to be calm — not panicked and stressed.

Clicker training, a reinforcement-based training system, along with counter conditioning and desensitization, were in order here. They worked without constraint and force. Through these coercion-free and positive methods, accompanied with highly desirable treats, we replaced unpleasant, fear-driven responses with pleasant and stress-free ones — to the point that Sudan kept coming back and rubbing his head on the clippers.

Sudan being clicker trained

Sudan being clicker trained. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

It really works

Although coercion-free and positive reinforcement techniques can take a little time, they work. We kept within Sudan’s personal time schedule and made gradual progress through a series of tiny steps, finally removing all of the wax from his neck, head, and ears with a minimum of stress and without force and constraint. Here’s what we did:

  1. The clippers
    We started with something easy — introducing Sudan to the clippers, using clicker training. The instant his nose touched them, I reinforced the behavior with a click and a treat. Within a few seconds he was repeatedly targeting them, eager for the treat that followed. Once he was cool with the clippers, George gradually moved them until they rested on his neck. Sudan always had the option of leaving the scene — he didn’t. My cat is highly motivated by food — he will jump through hoops (literally) for his favorite chicken treats.

    Sudan is reinforced through a click and a treat every time he touches the clippers

    Sudan is reinforced through a click and a treat every time he touches the clippers. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

  2. The buzz and vibration
    The buzz followed. George turned the clippers on so they buzzed and vibrated while he positioned them about a foot away. When Sudan retreated from the grating noise, nothing happened — no clicks, no treats. When he stayed, I clicked and gave him chicken. Once Sudan was comfortable with the buzz, George moved the vibrating clippers towards him in tiny increments. I reinforced Sudan when he chose to stay.

    Sudan always had the choice of retreating

    Sudan always had the choice of retreating. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

  3. The shave
    George touched Sudan’s head with the vibrating blade and clipped a small amount of wax from his fur. He manned the clippers while I continually reinforced and distracted Sudan with chicken. At first my skittish kitty tolerated less than a second of shaving, then gradually accepting more until George was able to give him a complete buzz cut without stressing him or us. Sudan was finally wax-free.

    Sudan relaxing while he is shaved

    Sudan relaxing while he is shaved by Marilyn Krieger.

A time for celebration

The three of us celebrated! George and I marked our victory with chocolate and coffee while Sudan relaxed in my lap. Although my sensitive cat won’t win any prizes for his new do, he was calm and wax-free. An unexpected development was Sudan’s new love affair with the clippers. He revels in being massaged with them. I covered the blade with a guard that acts like a massager. Every morning Sudan hangs out by the drawer where it’s stored, eager for a daily massage.

Sudan enjoying his daily massage

Sudan enjoying his daily massage. Photo by Marilyn Krieger

Sudan’s story illustrates how effective coercion-free and positive-based methods are. Although it took a little time to remove all of the wax, he was never constrained or forced. Throughout the process, Sudan was calm and stress-free.

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Got a cat behavior question for Marilyn? Ask our behaviorist in the comments below and you might be featured in an upcoming column. If you suspect a behavioral problem, always rule out any possible medical issues that may be causing the behavior by first having your cat examined by a veterinarian.

Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach, LLC, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations. She uses positive reinforcement, including environmental changes, clicker training and other behavior modification techniques.

She is also an award winning author. Her book Naughty No More! focuses on solving cat behavior problems through clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods. Marilyn is big on education — she feels it is important for cat parents to know the reasons behind their cat’s behaviors.

She is a frequent guest on television and radio, answering cat behavior questions and helping people understand their cats.