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Thursday, May 3

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The Magic Brush
By Nan Lockwood

I named her Topaz, for her eyes, golden with darker gold speckles. On the day I found her, she literally called out to me as I drove by—a mournful yowl from the depths of the swirling snow. From that moment on, she could reach out and speak to my heart, and make me understand her.

There amongst the frozen winter weeds, she was the ugliest cat I had ever seen. She was filthy, and her hair was matted to the skin, and she had bloody scratches across her neck. But her face, appealing to me with such personality, was irresistible.

Shaved with a lion cut, vaccinated and passed with a clean bill of health by the vet, she was started on a brushing regimen. I used an ordinary soft cat brush purchased at the grocery store. This little orange Persian would never again have to live with matted hair, or I would know the reason why!

Topaz did not take to brushing at first, and even after nine years she was still fussy about her tail, which was no doubt cruelly pulled. She did, gradually, learn to love being brushed. The key word here is gradually.

So many people have told me their cat would not allow brushing. This usually means they picked up their cat and held him or her, brushed a few strokes, the cat squirmed or tried to get away—end of brushing attempts. It could take months for your cat to learn to love the brushing ritual. Or it could take just a few sessions. Just keep at it every day, and reward her each time, even for allowing one stroke of the brush.

Five years after I found my Topaz, there came a time when she stopped jumping up on the bed every night. That year I was teaching four different subjects in a rural school, and I hadn’t realized I’d become so preoccupied that I was just going through the motions of caring for my cats. When I fell into bed at night, I missed my little orange lioness, but I wasn’t listening to what she was telling me by hiding under the bed at night, by changing our ritual.

I finally paid attention, on the day she vomited, had diarrhea, and refused to eat. I tried putting canned cat food on her lips, but she could only swallow a little. When I took her to Dr. Kevin, he fed her through a stomach tube. And what was even worse, though he is an excellent diagnostician, he didn’t know what was wrong with her.

I sat at home that evening, thinking of Topaz lying on a towel in a cage, so far from her familiar home. I walked out on the deck and looked up at the dark starry sky. I prayed that if there was anything I could do to help her to live…then it hit me—Topaz had no way of knowing that I had not deserted her. She was in a strange place, surrounded by strange sounds and smells; I had left her there, and gone away.

The next day I drove to the vet clinic right after work. I asked to see my little orange cat, and in my hand I carried her soft round brush. Dr Kevin brought her out of her cage and placed her on an examining table. She was limp. I began brushing her, and I will never forget Kevin’s reaction. He called excitedly to his tech, “Hey! Come here! Look at this!”

Topaz had stood up. She opened her eyes and looked around her with interest. It was the magic of the soft brush, and our ritual of trust. After that I went to the clinic after work each day to brush her. She would lie in my lap and purr, though some days her purring was faint. And there was still no diagnosis.

I asked Kevin if he could look up inside her somehow and see if something was lodged in her intestines. He did, and he saw something that looked like bones causing a blockage in her intestines. He flushed out the blockage with an enema, saving her life. Kevin looked at the “bones” under a microscope and determined that they were actually rock hard, petrified hair. Hair! Hair is what had nearly killed my Topaz!

When she was well enough to come home, I was instructed to keep her on canned cat food and Metamucil. Kevin and I had a serious conversation. He said, “We have to figure out some way to prevent this from ever happening again. It was hard on you and it hammered her.”

A lion cut and bath every six weeks was the answer. Kevin’s tech, Pam, who professionally grooms Persians, suggested that I learn to do it myself. She gave me a catalog and told me which clippers to order. And she warned me that clipping a cat would not be easy. I told her I thought if I could expertly shave an entire horse for a show, as I had been paid to do many times, I could certainly shave a cat. Pam just laughed at that. She said shaving a cat is much harder than shaving a horse, and that I would soon find out for myself.

How right she was. The first time I clipped Topaz it took hours, with my poor baby crying and scratching at me. I sat on the hardwood floor in the living room, singing shakily, trying to calm both of us. There was so much hair! And I was terrified of cutting her delicate skin. The clippers would get hot and I would have to stop and let them cool off to keep from burning her. We finally emerged, surrounded by piles of orange and white fluff--a miserable-looking kitty with a shabby excuse for a lion cut, and a bloodied owner. This was the ultimate bad hair day! The bath was a shambles, too, though Topaz was too tired to fight; she gasped and cried, but I got her washed and rinsed, and wrapped in a towel to get off the excess water.

Strangely enough, my dear kitty, after sitting under a lamp and drying herself, came prancing up to me, head held high and tail proudly swishing. All that evening and for the next few days, she lavished me with endearments: the cherished silent meow; the most audible of purrs; the rubbing of her face against my hand; the bright tender looks in her gold-speckled eyes. She knew! She knew I was doing it all out of love, and she knew I ached inside putting her through so much because of my ineptness. I called her my lovely lion, queen of all cats. Topaz understood.

Nanette Lockwood lives in Newport, Oregon, with her four Persians and a domestic longhair. She is a published author, and she has been training animals using operant conditioning and compassion (from horses to honeybees) for thirty years.