By Dr. Becker
Today, I'm interviewing the one and only Jackson Galaxy. Jackson is a cat behaviorist by day and a rock-n-roller by night. When it comes to cats, Jackson challenges the traditional cat-lover persona with his tattoo-clad arms and guitar-shaped briefcase filled with cat toys.
An animal activist and host of Animal Planet's hit TV show, My Cat from Hell, Jackson knew long ago he possessed a deep understanding of animal behavior and a gift for enlightening people on how to identify with their pet's behavior. Through holistic remedies and techniques like the "I Love You Blink," Jackson can calm even the most out-of-control felines.
In his first book, Cat Daddy: What the World's Most Incorrigible Cat Taught Me About Life, Love, and Coming Clean, Jackson tells the story of his work with animals that helped him overcome drug addiction and personal hardship. His second book, Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!), was just released this month.
Jackson is also co-founder of Spirit Essences, a collection of holistic remedies for animals, and just launched the Jackson Galaxy Collection by Petmate, an extensive national line of cat play products. Jackson is also preparing to launch the Jackson Galaxy Foundation as a way to improve shelter programs in America – how they're run and perceived. He is passionate about reducing the shelter overpopulation problem.
Jackson Shows People How to Develop Their Cat Mojo
I asked Jackson to talk about some of the more challenging cat behaviors he has come across. He replied that while many cats are indeed challenging, his job is really to challenge them – to take them past their comfort zone, along with their humans, to see what's beyond it. Jackson describes himself as a "motivational speaker for cats."
One of the natural instincts of felines is that they have no drive to please us. They don't care. Humans see that as a behavior problem. Beyond peeing outside the litter box, beyond a cat's aggressiveness or other behavior issues, what really bothers people is that cats don't listen to us. As Jackson sees it, that's where things go downhill in terms of the human-cat relationship.
I asked Jackson if he feels his real job is to alter human behavior rather than cat behavior; he replied that it's both. He teaches humans "Cat Mojo," which he defines as walking through the world like a cat, and learning what it is that motivates a cat. Once he gets a person to that empathetic place, human-cat problems start to resolve. But first humans have to get past their confusion about cat demeanor and behavior, and jumping to the conclusion that it's bad. Jackson believes understanding what makes a cat a cat is crucial to our success as guardians.
When Your Cat Acts Out, Your First Response Should Be 'Are You Okay?'
Jackson has an innate understanding of cats that he was probably born with or developed when he was very young. But I asked him if his work with shelter animals helped hone his skills. How does he help guardians understand they need to hang in there as long as necessary to work to the bottom of a cat's issues – especially a cat who has spent time in a shelter?
Jackson explained he always starts from an emotional, empathetic place. We all have access to that place. Until recently we didn't acknowledge or understand that animals experience post-traumatic stress. Then about five or six years ago, a military dog returned from Afghanistan with classic PTSD, confirmed by a diagnosis by Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who operates the Behavior Clinic at Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.
Historically, humans haven't acknowledged the depth of animals' feelings. Now, as we learn to do that, instead of reacting in that first moment when your cat pees on your bed with "Why did you do that to me?" we can instead ask, "Are you okay?"
Jackson firmly believes many of the problems cat guardians experience would solve themselves if their first response to a peculiar kitty behavior was "Are you okay?" rather than "Look how you've wronged me!"
When we take that perspective, we can begin re-patterning. We can use techniques like operant conditioning or exposure therapy to lessen a cat's response to emotional triggers. But Jackson says it's a fine line, in that we must know what behavior is actually "re-patternable" -- what's fair of us to try to re-pattern about a cat's behavior, versus what would be a disservice to the animal.
Learning to Accept "What Is"
We must also be willing to accept "what is." Animals sometimes have scars so deep that a particular behavior cannot be re-patterned. We must accept them and love them where they are, because we're not going to change that thing about them. We have to understand that "what is," is as far as that animal can go, and we can't expect any more of him. It's about grace… acceptance… and loving the animal as he is.
Jackson compares it to having a family member or other loved one who has been through a war. There's no changing that about the person, no matter their genetic makeup. When you experience war, it changes you. It's a part of your life from that point forward. You're a wartime survivor who does this, this, and this.
It's the same with animals. Jackson feels we don't acknowledge the real trauma animals experience when they lose their home, wind up in a shelter, are stripped of their territory, are abused or neglected – and then are adopted into a normal life. Today's normal doesn't erase yesterday's trauma. So we must respect the "what is" of the animal, but Jackson feels that's also the point at which we can begin challenging.
To do this, he uses what he calls the challenge line, which is that very specific point where a cat (or another animal, or a human) crosses from comfort to challenge. So we inch up to that line, we inch across it, and we try to reach a point where the cat says, "This is who I am. I may be shy, but that doesn't mean I have to spend my life under the bed."
When we're dealing with cats from a shelter background, there's usually some emotional stuff going on. So we need to help guardians provide a safe and loving environment, while also helping their cats become who they are meant to be. There's a fine line between motivating a kitty to become more confident, and pushing him. You don't push a cat, as he will most assuredly push back. What Jackson tells his clients is, "What we want is for your cat to be the best version of himself that he can be." It's the same thing you would want for your child.
And Jackson points out there are cats who will never be interested in throwing big cocktail parties for all their feline friends. This doesn't necessarily mean they lack confidence – it could simply mean they'd prefer to stay home and read a book. They're feline introverts. We understand and respect that humans have different temperaments and personalities, and we need to do the same with animals. But for some reason, though we respect a person who states his preferences, we don't hold the same respect for animals that tell us their preferences using body language.
Jackson has had countless emails and calls over the years from people who say, for example, "I just want my cat to be a lap cat." And he replies, "Your cat doesn't want to be a lap cat." I've had similar conversations with my own clients when they tell me what they want their pet to be or do. I say, "Did you ask him what HE wants to be? Because he may not want the same thing you do."
Banishing Boredom for Your Kitty
Another problem cats face is boredom. Let's say you have a kitty who has been well-cared for from birth, has lived a life of luxury, but is confined to her house. Her guardian works 10 hours a day, comes home exhausted, pops some food into her bowl, and that's it. That's the poor cat's life – no ability to get outdoors or move her body as nature intended. Cats are curious, brilliant creatures. They need stimulation. I asked Jackson how often he sees behavior problems in kitties that result from sheer boredom.
Jackson answered that it goes back to the concept of Cat Mojo. When we learn to walk through the world as our cats do, we understand their needs on a very basic level, and we naturally insure they have outlets for their curiosity, energy, and other innate gifts. Today's cats are still very much in touch with what Jackson calls their "raw cat." They have maintained their drive to awake from a nap to go hunt, catch, kill and eat prey, groom, go back to sleep, and do it all over again in a few hours. That's a cat's whole life, and when she's not given those outlets, it makes perfect sense that she winds up hunting your ankles, your children, or your dog.
Play is also crucial, which is why Jackson carries his guitar case full of toys and enticements to help draw out the raw cat. That's also what his new line of products with Petmate is all about, too. The goal is to increase interactivity. Jackson believes that as cat guardians, we all get lazy. We build a stash of toy mice, milk bottle caps, and other similar stuff, and we just toss them to the cat. But interactive play means we become our cat's prey – the mouse or the bird – moving the way it would, unpredictably, and really drawing out the cat's hunter energy.
Jackson has seen miraculous results when scaredy cats find their inner hunter. The confidence comes from the thought that "I just killed something," which is 100 percent raw cat at its core. The toy moves across the floor, the cat pounces on it and "kills" it. You can see the reaction in the cat's face. He's fired up. He realizes "THIS is what I was meant to do, isn't it!"
With cats who are bullies, we must take that over-stimulated source of energy and drain it with a natural focus, which is hunting. It erases the need to bully. The cat gets a payoff he can't get from hassling the other cats in the house. It's about introducing the bully cat to his raw inner cat.
The Importance and Simplicity of Prey Play Therapy
Jackson has seen tremendous results with structured play therapy and feels he's just barely scratched the surface. One of the toys in his new Petmate line is a variation of the old wand with attachments on the end of it. He's really proud that the new toys are incorporating more of the natural movements of prey.
Cat toys shouldn't be about appealing to humans, but to cats. Jackson has spent 20 years working with people and their cats in their homes, and taking notes every day with questions like "Why doesn't this exist?" So he's thrilled to be in a position to partner with a company like Petmate to create his vision.
I shared with Jackson that I live in the woods, so my cats have the opportunity to hunt mice all the time. In fact, their threshold for excitement is quite high and it's getting more difficult to keep them stimulated. I'll need Jackson's new toys before long because I'm having trouble continuing to meet the hunting expectations of my cats!
A lot of cat guardians who try to play interactively with their pets tell Jackson, "My cat doesn't play." They say, "No matter what I do, my can't won't play." So he asks them to show him how they play, and sure enough, they hold the wand in one hand like they're conducting an orchestra, while they text with the other hand. Or watch TV, or engage in some other distraction.
The cat, of course, is sitting there silently mocking her human. She's thinking, "Are you serious?" "Could you maybe get up and at least move around a little bit?" So of course she isn't going to play. As far as she's concerned, that useless thing you're distractedly waving around has nothing to do with her.
Jackson challenges everyone to try this experiment just once to see the result. Take your wand with the string and attachment at the end of it, or make one with a wire coat hanger and some string. Drag it slowly around the back of your couch until it disappears from sight, and tell us your cat won't pounce on it! This is what interactive play is all about. Finding ways to move the toys that energize your cat and bring out the swatting, batting, chasing, pouncing hunter in her.
Jackson says, "Don't forget – cats are not furniture." Cats are family members with very strong needs. Interactive prey play gives you a meaningful minute-by-minute bond with your cat. That should be the goal.
The 'I Love You Blink'
I asked Jackson to talk to us a little about the "I Love You Blink." Most cats do it, but many guardians don't realize what it is. It's a slow, intentional blink. The reason Jackson coined it the I Love You Blink is so humans can put intention behind it. Look at your cat with your eyes open, you're silently saying "I" – then you close your eyes and you're completing the silent phrase with "love you." You've told your cat "I love you" with your eyes. You intentionally send that message with your eyes. You'll notice that your cat will begin to return that blink to you.
The importance of the blink can't be overstated, according to Jackson. He says it's our "Rosetta Stone" – our one and only way of meeting our cats at the "communicative fence." When our cat meows, he's attempting to jump over to our side of the fence. When we play with our cat, we're trying to jump over to his side. The I Love You Blink lets us meet right in the middle.
It's a way of saying "I love you." When a cat closes his eyes with us, he is saying "I allow myself to be vulnerable to you, a potential predator." That's a big deal. And so we respond in kind with our own blink. Cats add to the blink with other subtle behaviors that mean different things, but it all starts from the I Love You Blink. And that is a great place to start!
Reading Your Cat's Body Language for Signs of Pain
I told Jackson that I recently spoke with his good friend and associate Dr. Jean Hofve about how a cat's body language can provide lots of information. She explained that if we pay close attention to the positioning of cats' ears and whiskers, and the size of the pupils, we can pick up information about pain or discomfort they are feeling. But it requires taking time to totally focus on the cat, which ends up being almost like meditating in that we are grounding out and balancing ourselves as we focus on the cat.
As Jackson puts it, "You've got to tell yourself, 'step away from the cat.'" Instead of thinking "My cat's angry," or "My cat's jealous," focus on her eyes. What do they look like? What are her ears doing? What does her piloerection (involuntary bristling of the hair) look like?
These are all things controlled by your cat's sympathetic nervous system. What are they telling you? In order to find out, you have to remove your ego and enter sort of a meditative process by focusing on your cat. Put aside all your personal knowledge of communication and just be a journalist focused on what your cat's body is telling you.
Flower Essence Therapy
Speaking of Dr. Hofve, I want to explain for our viewers and readers how Jackson and I crossed paths. I talked to him first many years ago at an American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA) convention, where he explained how he helped create the Spirit Essences line of remedies. As Jackson explains it, Spirit Essences is holistic energy medicine. It's flower essence therapy, which was popularized over a hundred years ago by Dr. Edward Bach. The Bach line of flower essences is well-documented these days, especially Rescue Remedy, which you can find at your local Whole Foods and similar retail outlets. Jackson didn't get involved in flower essences himself until he met Dr. Hofve. He and Dr. Hofve partnered to launch their website, Little Big Cat. It was Jackson's first foray outside of his work with animal shelters.
He and Dr. Hofve were trying to get their website and business, which was mind-body consulting for cats, up and running, and they also needed to reinvigorate another facet of the business, Spirit Essences. It had been sitting essentially dormant after Dr. Hofve created it around 1995.
Jackson and Dr. Hofve reformulated the flower essences using their knowledge of how to balance certain energetic states they saw over and over in cats. Fast-forward to today, and Spirit Essences is a very successful line of remedies. People have reached the point where they can accept the benefits of holistic treatments they can't really define or explain.
Cats Are Sensitive to Stress, and It Can Make Them Very Sick
When we speak of energetic states, we must acknowledge that stress is an integral part of illness, and in fact, we're learning stress is often the root of many chronic human diseases. I think it's fair to say that an emotional imbalance occurs first, which leads to a physiologic imbalance, which leads to physiologic symptoms, which leads to tissue changes, which leads to disease. There's a documented correlation between negative emotional states (anger, frustration, sadness, fear) and physiologic manifestations of medical conditions. Bladder and urinary issues in cats are a good example.
Jackson believes there's also a strong connection in cats between stress and what we term inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The problem with IBD is that in cats, it's often impossible to pin down exactly what the disease is. One of Jackson's own cats nearly died from IBD. It's so common that he feels stress can cause it, trigger it, and exacerbate it.
Cats need stability in their lives from one day to the next. They need "predictability within the territory," as Jackson puts it. Realistically, most people aren't able to provide the kind of consistent stability cats need every day of every month of every year. When anything causes significant stress (good or bad) in your own life -- say, a new boyfriend or girlfriend or husband or wife, a new baby, a new dog or cat, a vacation, a move – you can rest assured your cat is feeling it too. Cats are like energy sponges. They soak it all up, and push it back out again.
So you need to acknowledge what's happening, work with it, and provide your cat with as much stability as possible. Use modalities like flower essences or any number of things we've discussed to help them move through the stress gracefully. Otherwise, they're just gathering that stressful energy, building it up, and as we know, if we don't create flow of energy through the body, blockages occur and disease comes a-knocking.
Jackson's Latest Book, Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!) Is Now Available
Speaking of maintaining energy flow and a sense of territorial security in cats, the way to do that is by enhancing their environment, which is the perfect opening to talk about Jackson's latest book, just out this month, called Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!).
Jackson wrote Catification with his friend Kate Benjamin of hauspanther (formerly Modern Cat). Her website is about stylish approaches to living with a cat, and in fact, she calls herself a cat style expert. For Jackson, it was sort of a match made in heaven, because as he puts it, "I'm all about the function and she's all about the form." Catification is the meeting point between the two.
If you've seen Jackson's show, My Cat from Hell, you've heard him talk about "cat superhighways," "bush dwellers," "tree dwellers," and how to identify where your cat finds his mojo on the vertical axis. That's where Catification takes off – identifying who your cat is in terms of his personality type and where he finds confidence – then exploiting that by building a home around it. It's about raising your cat's confidence, and being able to live with it from a human standpoint. Because, as Jackson says, "Nobody wants their house to look like a crazy cat lady's house, right?" The goal is for it to be successful for humans as well.
Jackson describes Catification as a beautiful, full-color design book that draws on a lot of the cases from his show, as well as his and Kate's personal experiences in their own lives and homes. It shows readers how to use imagination and elbow grease – without breaking the bank -- to change their cat's environment and reduce stress in a big way.
I'm excited to read the book, and I'm also excited that people are getting an opportunity to learn how to enhance the emotional and physical well-being of their cats in such a unique and creative way!
Thank You, Cat Daddy!
I'm so amazed with all that Jackson is doing to help people better understand, communicate, and live with the felines that grace our world. I also appreciate all the work he's doing with the humane movement and his desire to end the overpopulation problem.
I want to thank Jackson Galaxy for taking time to speak with me today and share his gifts with Healthy Pets visitors. I look forward to talking to him again very soon!