“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.
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.
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.
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:
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’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.