How a camera flash is helping a feisty deaf cat

Unable to hear, Jelly Bean circles and paces due to a neurological condition, but with special training she's feeling better than ever
By Sarah Thornton

A flash of light, praise from caregivers and a spoonful of her favorite food helps Jelly Bean focus on the critical task at hand: perfecting her high-five. A mild neurological condition makes it difficult for Jelly Bean to control her body and gives her a bit of a head bob. Her mind seems to move at a million miles a second, which causes her to pace (circling and circling and circling), unable to settle in one spot for very long. She can’t even focus on the sounds around her, because Jelly Bean is deaf.

Caregivers at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary are using a special training method to help the striking tortoiseshell cat focus on just one thing — a kind of mindfulness exercise that helps Jelly Bean relax and feel good.

Jelly Bean lost her home, ended up at Cobb County Animal Control in Georgia, and from there made her way to Best Friends. As caregivers got to know her, they could see how the lack of hearing and the neurological condition affected her behavior. When she shared space with other cats, they often startled her unintentionally, not knowing she couldn’t hear them approach. Though she liked to be petted, she soon got overstimulated and her first reaction was to bite.

At Cat World, Jelly Bean got her own quiet room where she could decompress and get help from expert behavior consultants. It was clear that she liked people and wanted to be petted, but then she couldn’t handle it. Caregivers hoped that Jelly Bean would be happier if she had a productive way of burning off excess energy while getting the attention she wanted. Clicker training was out of the question because she wouldn’t be able to hear a signal indicating that she had done what was asked. Or was it?

Jellybean the calico cat looking back over her shoulder toward the camera

Flash training for deaf cat

Jelly Bean couldn’t hear, but she could certainly see. Instead of a traditional sound-based clicker, a bright flash of light could be used as the sign of reinforcement. With the lights turned off and a camera flash in hand, Jelly Bean’s training began. And boy, did she take to it. It didn’t take her long to learn that touching her paw to her caregiver’s hand meant that the flash would go off and a dollop of wet food would soon appear.

The new game sparked her curiosity. She concentrated on what she could do to get a treat, and then another and another. The training sessions provided an outlet for her busy mind, and the regular schedule gave her a sense of stability.

“She definitely seems to get excited when it's time for training,” says Kelly Keenan Zavis, one of Jelly Bean’s caregivers. She’s also so smart that, according to Kelly, she started trying to game the game — testing how little she had to do to get the reward.

Jellybean the calico cat targeting toward a finger

Deaf calico cat Jellybean reaching up to high five a woman's hand

Looking forward to the future

The training has given Jelly Bean a newfound sense of confidence. Because she’s more aware of approaching visitors, she runs to the door to greet them rather than staring out at the silent world through her “catio” screen. Knowing that she has company, of course, keeps her from being surprised, which is its own confidence booster. She’s building trust with her caregivers by having some control over the situation, even if she might not always have control over her body.

As her caregivers build on this foundation by adding more tricks to her list, Jelly Bean’s confidence is sure to grow. While she may still pace, being able to exercise her brain helps ground her and lets her relax. “She is a smart girl, full of curiosity and very personable,” says Kelly. “Jelly Bean has a great spirit.”

Eventually, that spirit and sense of curiosity will stand out to someone who wants to adopt her and bring her home where she can feel comfortable and connected — a home forever.

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The back of a person's hand with Jellybean the cat in the background and touching the hand with her paw
Photos by Molly Wald