How to understand your 'Cat from Hell'

NEED TO KNOW
  • Cat behaviorist and TV host Jackson Galaxy explains how to decode your cat's mysterious behavior
  • Empathy is your key to a better cat/person relationship
How to understand your 'Cat from Hell'
Jackson

Editor's Note: Jackson Galaxy is a cat behaviorist and the host of Animal Planet's hit show "My Cat from Hell." 

If you live with a cat, you're privy to one absolute truth: You may own it, you may rent it, you may live in it, but the cat ALWAYS rules the house. It's one of the joys and challenges of cat ownership, but sometimes even the most friendly feline can turn into a hairy, four-pawed terror. We talked with Animal Planet's Jackson Galaxy about what to do if your cat's driving you crazy, and how to forge a better bond for the future.

HLN: As a cat behaviorist, what are the most common types of problems you see in the cats you work with?
Jackson Galaxy:
Usually it boils down to a couple of things: Not using the litter box and "beating someone up," whether it be another cat, dog, person or child. It's those really high-alarm things in someone's daily routine that's going to lead them to call me. It's not like, your dog bites the mailman and suddenly you're calling the dog trainer. It's all about unpredictability. If you can't figure out why your cat is doing something, you have to go through that frustration of, "I should know my pet better than anyone else!"

HLN: On the flip side, what are some misconceptions you see from pet owners?
JG
: The problem when it comes to pet parents, is that obstinance, that kind of, "I should know better than you what's wrong with my animal," and that leads to the problem getting worse and more entrenched. And that leads to projection -- because we have trouble interpreting the cat's body language, facial features and motivations, we put all kind of crazy things on them. "My cat hates me," things like that. And that couldn't be farther from the truth most of the time. When you put that [thinking] on your cat, you're going to have a slippery slope, which leads you to divesting yourself of the relationship between you and your cat. That lessens the bond, which may lead you to even surrendering your cat to a shelter.

And that's literally my one goal: To keep cats out of shelters. Getting through people's egos is part of the game.

HLN: What's the worst you've seen?
JG:
I had a cat named Penny Lane [on the show]. She was incredibly violent and unpredictable, and when I went to spend some time alone with her, she really went after me pretty hard, on my face. The amazing thing was that, in experimenting, I found a toy, and as soon as that toy hit the floor, that cat turned into a kitten. Discovering that relationship and her motivations buried underneath that crazy was incredibly rewarding, but dangerous.

It opened my eyes, in terms of her personal struggles. But it also opened the audience's eyes. You say "crazy," but underneath that, you see an animal who is being tortured by her own brain or her own body. Unlocking the audience's empathy was the key to dispelling some of those myths.

HLN: How did you even become a cat behaviorist?
JG:
I started working in an animal shelter in the early '90s and it was just sort of serendipity. It wasn't until I was surrounded by, literally, hundreds of cats that I saw they had an affinity towards me, and I had equal empathy towards them. In a shelter, you sort of click into another gear, which is, "What can I do to save these guys?" So then that was my job. Necessity is the mother of invention.

HLN: How can someone better understand their cat?
JG:
To increase understanding, you have to increase empathy, and to increase empathy, you have to see the world the way they see it. We start discussing "cat mojo," that inner fire that just moves you. With cats, its all about the ownership of territory. If they don’t own something, they’re like "Why don’t I own this?" or "Fine, don’t own this, I’m just passing through." There are all these fears that relate to territorial instincts.

If you watch your cat do something, and you remove your human attachment to that problem, you are solving the problem. I call that journaling. You are immersing yourself into their world.

HLN: To you, what are the benefits of pet ownership, and cat ownership in particular?
JG:
I think connection with animals is key to connection with humans because they provide us this unconditional love, and we can experience what it is to give and get back, which prepares us for human relationships. As a society, we learn compassion and love from the ground up, and the animals represent the ground.

A relationship with a cat brings you humility and patience, because they're so outside the human realm. Our relationship with dogs, and even horses, are more accessible. We have evolved them with us, and we’ve cultivated certain behaviors that we like. We’ve never done that with cats. Their motivations, their moment-to-moment "mojo" is a little outside of us, and we have to approach their side of the communicative sense in order to have a relationship with them. For many humans, that’s asking a lot. And that’s part of a reason we love them so much. As a species, they keep our ego in check .

HLN: What are some tips you have for helping people deal with their own "Cats from Hell?"
JG:
What you owe your cat is understanding their motivations. If your cat is peeing on your drapes, instead of going to that place of chaos, back up. Journal it. What is it they are trying to say? Nothing your cat is trying to say is random.

Always get to the vet, and do a complete physical check. You have to do urinalysis, blood panel and get an ultrasound, and see if there is something going on in your cat's body that’s causing them pain. I've seen cats who don’t use their litter box because they have a bad tooth! Then, from there, you start looking at territorial reasons. Cats peeing on the drapes -- what’s on the other side of those drapes, what’s on the other side of that window? Probably other cats. There’s barbarians at the gate! You have to start looking at the threats to their mojo. Don't look at it as an attack on you. If you really look at them, you'll see that most problems start solving themselves.

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