Today I travelled from London to Cambridge to visit a huge Maine Coon called Alfie who sends shivers down his vets spine whenever they meet, as well as a local groomer who now refuses to groom him after recently spending a brief amount of time with Alfie on the grooming table.
I can well understand why people are hesitant to deal with Mr A. When I first set eyes on him he was so much bigger than the photo that was emailed to me. He was a typical no-nonsense Maine Coon and had the build to back up his attitudes. To be fair Alfie was sweet upon my arrival and head butted me several times before noticing my bag which was full of Catnip mice! He didn’t mess with protocol. His head was in the bag sniffing out the toys which I had brought with me and that was that. He was drooling all over the place and didn’t seem concerned that a stranger had entered his home with a dreaded comb!
Alfie presents a common problem and one which I was called upon to try and solve. To cut a long story short Mr A hates being groomed. He hates his vet, he hates being held and he hates being combed through, which sadly has resulted in a very matted cat.
His vet has a strict approach to this show of aggression and promptly scruffs and sedates Alfie on every visit, because Alfie is a large cat that could cause serious damage. Alfie has only known scruffing and sedation at his vet’s so it’s not surprising that the situation always turns ugly when cat and vet meet. I would guess that Alfie’s aggression at the vet is fear based.
Force-based techniques and crude handling skills undoubtedly play a significant role in hand bite injuries with veterinary hospital staff…. Every time we force pets in this manner, or even handle pets in a rushed careless way, we risk breaking the promise, as a veterinarian, to do no harm. We may send the patient home with a ‘behaviorial injury’. That’s because, with each bad experience, difficult behaviour and fear can worsen until the patient is no longer treatable, which ultimately can contribute to the decision to euthanise – Landsberg, Hunthausen, Ackerman (2013)
I would also like to quote my own vet, Dr Carmichael, at Addisons vets who commented, after I had been bitten once, that ‘It is never the cats fault. The technician or handler has done something to make the cat react in this way’ You can read more about my previous cat bite HERE.
What I was interested in seeing first hand was whether Alfie was genuinely fearful of grooming or was acting up and becoming ‘aggressive’ as a learned behaviour to stop the grooming process.
To initially find out how Alfie responded I had to go through some steps, as I would in any normal grooming situation, to watch first hand what happens. The first thing I did before I brought my table and other grooming equipment into the living room, was to sit on the floor next to Alfie and let him sniff me and play with his new toys. I also gave him several ‘Thrive’ freeze-dried treats. He seemed very relaxed in my company so while he played with his catnip mouse, I went to gather my equipment and set up.
Some cats hate having their paws touched or their nails clipped, so to make life easy for myself from the start, I decided to leave any clipping of nails and wear protective gloves instead. This stops any of the cat’s fear response to having its major defence weapons meddled with. I do try to always leave a cat’s nails long when they are outdoor cats such as Alfie. Having such important weapons taken away would cause a cat stress, especially when it needed to defend itself, and protective gloves means this is not so necessary. I then wanted to know how Alfie responded to A: The table, B: Me touching him C: The sound of the clippers and D: The comb on his back. These steps were carried out with Alfie on the table using food and his mummys cuddles as a distraction.
Although Alfie wasn’t so bothered by any of the above he still went into his learned actions and started to growl and hiss. He growled and hissed between mouthfuls of tuna as I gently placed the clipper blades on his back on low speed (and low sound) to see his reactions.
The next steps were to try and groom him and boy, did he need grooming!
He hated a towel I had strategically placed around his neck and shoulders (so that if he turned around to bite me he would get a mouthful of thick towel instead) so I decided to be safe and put an Elizabethan Collar on him instead.
Alfie did what I expected him to do. He huffed and puffed, growled and hissed, used his strength to try and stop me grooming him. He is a VERY strong cat and, although I pushed him a little to ‘change’ his expectations of us, I also gave him many breaks which were rewarded with more of his fav tuna. My philosophy is ‘cat gives me a little I’ll give the cat a little’ and I needed to show Alfie that Grooming = nice treats and good things.
And so it went on. Alfie was challenged and I won’t lie, was hard work, but I really needed to understand what was going on here and what he did or didn’t respond well to. Was he really fearful or was he playing up because he has learned that by vocalising louder and louder his owners automatically would stop.
He did struggle a little and is a big strong cat, so I groomed in short bursts and during breaks he stomped around in his ‘helmet’ before swallowing his pride and eating yet more food. We were running out fast LOL
He was stressed a little at the very beginning when I challenged him and again towards the end, when I attempted to shave his tummy and lie Alfie on his side. It was all too much for one session and I immediately stopped at this point. At the end of the session Alfie quickly had his collar removed and promptly went out into the garden to play with his new toys (another nice thing to connect to grooming). When I joined him he head butted my hand to show no hard feelings and seemed totally relaxed. I was pleased he did this because a fearful stressed cat would not have responded well to me at all and would still been frightened and hissing. A fearful cat would have backed into a corner or hidden totally out of reach.
What I did discover was that Alfie had an aversion to being held and especially if it’s not on his terms which gives him the feeling that he cannot escape and is trapped. Don’t we all! Many cats, especially Chincilla Persians, have an aversion to this. So a lot of shaving was done on the floor whilst his owner spoon fed him more tasty tuna. Of course, this position is fine for the back and sides but difficult for the tummy and inner legs. He was not going to let me get near to this section, on this session, which sadly was more matted than his back.
The point of this session was to decide what plan of action to take for the future. Alfie’s vet suggested he be put down which is absurd. Another solution would be to keep Alfie with a lion cut which would mean life long sedation. Also absurd and impractical for when he gets older.
Today’s session gave me hope. The short time it took Alfie to recover and jump down from the table was encouraging. His body-weight worked against us really as neither myself nor his owner were strong enough when he puffed up to show who was boss! It’s important to note that not once did he try to use his claws on me or his mummy. Very important to me because Alfie could easily have used these weapons to make a huge dent in my protective wear if he had wanted to.
So, Alfie was partly shaved and the vet will sadly have to complete the final stages so that we can start with a clean slate for counter-conditioning. Unfortunately this means more scruffing and rough handling by the vet to sedate him but, hopefully, this may be the last time it happens connected to grooming him. I am hoping, with training, we can break this vicious cycle. I do wish I lived closer 😦
The first thing is to find Alfie’s ‘jackpot’ food. Something that he loves with a passion and which is only ever brought out during short introductory combing sessions. I think the key to success is not to hold or restrict Alfie, but have short combing sessions when he is at his most relaxed and enjoying his super jackpot food. The owner was shown the correct way to comb a cat’s fur, the correct grooming tools to use and has been given instructions to slowly start getting Alfie used to the comb. Using the correct combing methods will ensure Alfie is not being hurt and I feel confident that gradually he will learn to enjoy the process, especially if he has free movement and tasty rewards.
It’s also vital that Alfie’s owners feel confident in grooming him and DO ‘call his bluff’ when he grumbles and puffs up. There is a huge difference between a cat who is fearful and stressed and one who is ‘playing up’ and used to getting its own way.
In a situation like this I decided to stop when Alfie reached his limit. To have insisted the groom continued and used force would have been detrimental to how Alfie responded to future counter-conditioning. I live too far from Cambridge to oversee these sessions and also I would have loved to complete Alfie myself, under sedation. Sadly I had to leave it there and head back to London.
I was really happy with how the session went and had a great chance to observe Alfie first hand.
He is not a monster. He is actually an extremely sweet cat that just hates being told what to do, but this can be worked on – bit like a troubled teenager. I look forward to my updates from Alfie’s mummy and daddy and do wish them well for the future.
ALFIE”S OWNER FEEDBACK
Was a brilliant 3 and a half hours though, learned a lot, so glad I called you!!!! He actually plays with a rod toy now, and he practically prostituted himself for your catnip mice….
You are a truly awesome woman. You never spoke down to me and connected with both cats so well! Am very interested in learning more from you. You’d make a great speaker!
If you have concerns regarding your cats response to grooming then please do get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
I am always interested in helping owners with this type of problem. It can be very harrowing to think you have a lifelong problem with a long-haired cat and both cat and owner deserve a helping hand.
I do hope you have enjoyed this post. I shall update with Alfie’s owner’s feedback and ongoing progress.