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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Hair Chewer

Here's a question from Becca....

In the past few months my cat has been eating my hair while I sleep. I tried just telling him no and batting him on the head but when I fall back asleep he starts at it again. I tried kicking him out of the room but he spends the entire night crying and throwing himself against our door and I do enjoy our snuggle time. I am starting to lose my mind from lack of sleep. Do you know what could be causing this or how I can get him to stop?

Well, this is a bit of a strange case, and I can't think of hearing about a problem like this before. But I'll see what I can do to help.
First, have you changed shampoos recently, especially just prior to this starting? There might be a possibility that with the various plants and fruits used in certain shampoos that he is finding something appealing in the scent or taste. A cat's appetite is driven as much by scent as anything, so a good odor may stimulate him to chew on it.  Consider going to a shampoo that doesn't have any strong odors.
I'm not sure if this is possible, but have you considered putting your hair up in a cap or hairnet when you sleep? Keeping him from having access to it may be one solution. Alternatively you can get a bitter spray (such as Bitter Apple brand) and spray your hair just before going to bed. Try it on a small section of your hair at first to make sure you won't damage it, but these sprays are non-toxic to people and pets...they just taste bad. You do run the risk of getting some of your own hair in your mouth so be warned. Also make sure you wash it really well after getting up in the morning.
What you have to do is make any deterrent greater than the reward he gets from chewing at the hair. Negative reinforcement needs to follow the "ICE" rule. It needs to be Immediate, happening just after the unwated behavior (within 20-30 seconds). It needs to be Consistent, happening every single time the behavior is exhibited. And it needs to be Effective, actually stopping the behavior for even a short period of time. Failure to meet one of these three criteria may result in the pleasure and reward from chewing the hair outweighing any punishment.
If none of this works, you can try putting him out of the room just before bed. In this case get some Feliway, which is a pheromone analog that helps reduce stress in different situations with cats. You can get this from a vet, major pet supply stores, or online and it comes in several forms. Put a plug-in diffuser near the door, or use a spray on the floor and door frame to see if this helps with his anxiety of being locked out.
Good luck!