How to Become a Problem Solving Cat Detective with Jackson Galaxy
When friends heard I interviewed Jackson Galaxy they wanted to know, "What's he really like?" I'm pleased to tell you the Jackson Galaxy we see on My Cat From Hell is the same warm, sincere guy I interviewed. Jackson's easy-going style made the interview feel like we'd known each other for years, and the advice he shared is going to help thousands of cat owners. With cat problems like scratching, biting, or inappropriate peeing (the #1 reason cats are surrendered or returned to a shelter), most of us wouldn't even know where to begin. But Jackson shares insights about how we can become cat detectives to solve the problem, and in the process, learn more about our cat’s mojo—which makes for a happy owner and a happy kitty.
MC It's kind of embarrassing, but I'd have to say one of the things my husband and I learned from watching your show is how to play with our cats. My husband and I were kind of like the guy you featured on an episode of My Cat From Hell. When you asked him to let you watch him playing with the cat, the guy just stood there, holding the toy out in front of his cat, waiting for the cat to start playing. My husband and I just always thought our cats weren't interested in toys, but we had to learn “cat play.”
If someone was trying to solve a problem they're having with their cat, how would they begin to find a solution? For instance, if a cat is peeing outside the litter box, are there general steps that a cat owner could do to try to find a solution to the problem?
JG First of all, go to the vet. Get your cat checked out to make sure nothing is medically wrong. Don't sit there driving yourself and your cat crazy trying to figure out what the behavioural peeing problem is when your cat is raising the red flag and saying in their own way, “Ouch, it hurts when I pee.” So you have to rule that out first.
Once you do that, you need to get it out of your head that the peeing is random. Random locations—it's a mindset. “He's peeing everywhere” is what you're telling yourself and whoever will listen. But your cat isn't peeing everywhere; he's speaking to you. In the absence of language, a cat's urine or where they pee is speaking to you about their insecurity in their territory. So get it out of your mind that it's jealousy, that it's a grudge your cat has against you, and it's not spite, you know, those are traps that we fall into. Because we don't understand the behaviour we go to that easy place, which is to humanize the cat's behaviour. Once you realize it's not spite, you realize it's anxiety. One of the most important things you can do is to journal your experiences. I don't care what kind of behaviour problem you're dealing with, when you're journaling, you get out of the mindset of the random, and move towards your work as a cat detective.
MC Because then when you're journaling, the person is saying in their mind that it's kind of an experiment?
JG Right, right, and it actually serves another purpose; it emotionally takes you out of the equation. If you're a detective, then you are impartial—you're gathering information. You're not responding to that feeling, “Dammit, my cat's peeing everywhere.” Instead, you're invested in solving the problem. And it's hard to solve a problem that is offensive to family members. So journaling is a psychological exercise to remove you, to take the “stakes” away a little bit, right?
MC I can see why journaling is so important. It helps you remember. I can't remember what I had for lunch or what I did yesterday, so I see what you mean, if you're looking around at all the places your cat has peed, you're thinking, “Oh my god, the cat's peeing everywhere,” but if you're journaling every day, you look back and see, “Well, no, he's only peeing by the door.”
JG And it's also not just the where, it's the when (that's very important), and it's the “who”—meaning is it somebody's belongings? You're journaling and then doing what I call the “Anti-Treasure Map.” The Anti-Treasure Map: use painter's tape, I think the brand name is Blue, and put an X-marks-the-spot wherever your cat pees. The tape doesn't stick to the carpet; you don't have to worry about any of that. Put those X's around the house and for each X, you journal. And I promise you, at the end of a week, I promise, you'll look at it and go “Oh my god, right!” You'll see that your cat was making a circle around a certain area. Your cat was saying, “There's something in this particular area that's making me insecure.”
Then [its] detective work is…Is it another animal in the house or something outdoors? If your cat is peeing by the front door and beneath the window, that’s perimeter marking. It's your cat's way of almost offensively saying, “This is my castle; this is my moat. Keep away barbarian, away from the gate.” So who is your cat talking to? Is it a threat in the house? No, it's a threat from without, because obviously there are cats in your neighbourhood that are threatening your cat inside. He's peeing on that window and peeing on that door to send a message to the outsiders: “This belongs to me.”
Those are the things you discover when you get your mind away from, “Oh my god, the drapes, he peed on the drapes.” Instead you're asking questions. As you've seen in my show, half the work is cat behaviour and half the work is human psychology. And this empowers you to emotionally divest, and I think that's really an important thing.
MC Talking about the human psychology side of the problem, several of the questions readers submitted, included a note, “My cat is peeing all over and my spouse is extremely upset about it.”
JG Okay, that's fair to say. Someone might tell me, “I have a new boyfriend that moved into the house and now my cat's peeing all over the place.” So first of all—yes, somebody came into the house and that person represents a territorial threat to an insecure cat. Now, let's get out of the personal feelings, investigate and ask questions.
Is the cat peeing in your boyfriend's shoes? Yes. So now we know what's going on, and instead of letting your boyfriend buy into the poison of telling you, “Your cat hates me, you know—well, I don't like your cat then,” you have to find ways to turn your boyfriend into a positive presence and allow your cat to realize that this guy is a good thing, not a threat. In my book there's a section where I liken the experience of learning how to communicate with your cat to being an Ambassador. The American Ambassador, where you're sitting across the table from a hostile country—which you know nothing about—and how do you get to the point where you trust each other? The technique to trust, I call the three-step handshake.
At first you present yourself in a completely non-threatening way to the cat, which is by scent. Then you give them a gift that smells like you—I present the ear of my glasses—and then the last thing you do is shake hands. Take a finger, let the cat sniff it like he did the glasses or pen, and bring that finger toward the spot between and just above the eyes. Let him meet your finger with his head and push against it until you've made a fluid move from the bridge of his nose up to between the ears. It's a mutual gesture, like a handshake or an embrace. There: you're no longer strangers.
If you want to solve a problem, you have to be an ambassador; you have to be a detective. You don't want to be a hotheaded person bent on revenge. That's where you get nowhere.
MC Yes, it really is like learning to interact with people. If you want to be right, you can stick to trying to be right. But if you want to solve the problem, you're going to have to put aside the emotions that you've built up.
JG Exactly right. Ego gets you nowhere. By the way, a lot of the talks I've been giving around the country about cat mojo—the topics always morph into what you've learned about your marriage in working with your cat, what you learned about other humans, and what you learned about your own character defects by working with cats. It's actually really a bottomless well of fascination. Because cats are involved in so many parts of the human experience, and they're so right for projection—we can project all kinds of nonsense on them. When you reverse that projection, [it reveals so much about] you and your character defects, your strengths, and the way you treat relationships.
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