PHOENIX -- If you're a cat guardian, chances are you've wondered -- probably more than once -- what's going on inside that furry head. Cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy knows. Nicknamed "Cat Daddy," Galaxy is fluent when it comes to speaking cat, and he's more than willing -- thrilled, even -- to share what he's learned over the years.
He wants cat guardians to be proactive so they can head off potential issues before they fester into real problems.
"If we can get this done before the problem is a problem, there won't be a problem," Galaxy said.
That's why he encourages those who share their lives with felines to become somewhat bilingual.
"Cat speak" is at the heart of Galaxy's Cat Mojo 101 seminar. It's a must-attend for anyone who has ever been involved in a battle of wills with a cat or two. In my mind, that pretty much includes anyone who has ever been owned by a cat.
I was one of more than 300 people who packed the Franciscan Renewal Center in Phoenix for Galaxy's 90-minute seminar last Friday evening. It was standing-room only, and as engaging and entertaining as it was informative, I'd go again in a heartbeat.
Moderncat Enterprises, which is owned by Kate Benjamin, put the event together.
"I was thrilled with the turnout! It really was a who's who of Arizona cat lovers," Benjamin said. "We even had people come to town from New York and Kansas City -- just for the event!"
With his vibrant personality, contagious enthusiasm and obvious love for cats, Galaxy was the draw.
"Jackson was funny and insightful," said Karen Speaker-Nunley, the guardian of two cats. "Through it all, one thing was very clear. He loves cats -- all cats. Even the hellish ones. I can't wait for Cat Mojo 102!"
Galaxy, the star of Animal Planet's "My Cat From Hell," didn't set out to be a cat behaviorist. He actually didn't have much to do with cats until he started working at the high-traffic, high-stress cat shelter at the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in Colorado.
An experiment with what author Anitra Frazier, whom Galaxy calls his mentor, described as the "cat I love you" on a stormy -- and yowly -- night at the shelter showed the Cat Dad what he could do. Galaxy calls it the slow blink. Anyone who has shared a home with a cat has seen it. Galaxy starts most feline conversations with that blink. When a cat returns it, Galaxy knows he's made a connection. The experiment was a success. In less than an hour, he had turned a room full of yowling cats into a feline slumber party.
That was the turning point for Galaxy. Since then he's pretty much seen it all.
While most of his clients come to him for aggression problems and litter-box issues, there have been some extreme cases, including that of Penny Lane. She adored her human mom, but hated everybody else. Just the sound of somebody's voice would cause her to lash out in potentially dangerous ways -- even at Galaxy himself.
(Watch video of Galaxy's first meeting with Penny Lane)
As he tried to establish a rapport with Penny Lane, he discovered that she loved to play. The minute the fun ended, however, the switch in her head would flip. Despite his extensive experience, Penny Lane was a first for Galaxy.
"Every time I picked up that toy, she turned into a kitten. The second I put it down and I spoke, she went for my face," he recalled. "It was, in the same breath, frightening and then you felt really, really bad for her because to be trapped in that body could not be fun. Trying to get through to her when she was in that state was impossible, despite his guitar case full of tricks.
"I've never seen any cat do that before," he continued. "I've seen cats with varying degrees of neurologic problems, but nothing that incredible."
Galaxy actually ended up recommending a vet visit and possible medication for Penny Lane, something he only does as a last resort.
Some people weren't pleased with that decision, but Galaxy stands by it, saying it was the best thing for both Penny Lane and her human companion.
"Why wouldn't we avail ourselves of [something that could help her]?" he said.
Just to be clear, drugs are never Galaxy's first choice.
"I'm going to take a behavioral approach first and then afterwards I'm going to decide if there's another tack we have to take," he said.
With Penny Lane, there were no behavioral options. While Galaxy spoke cat, Penny Lane didn't.
"In order for her to speak cat at all, she had to realize that there weren't 'enemies at the gate,'" he said.
Once she was on medication, Galaxy was able to make the connection he wanted.
Few of Galaxy's cases are that extreme. Most of them can be solved with some fairly simple measures and the results are nearly immediate.
"Most of them are easy," he said. "On TV, you get to see the ones that are out of control. … But seeing that level, you realize that you don't have it so bad."
The cat-human relationship all comes down to communication, which means cat guardians need to learn to see the world through their cats' eyes. That's not always as easy as it might sound.
Photo by Nancy Nighswonger
Cats are not unlike babies. Sometimes you've done everything possible for them -- fed them, burped them, changed them -- and they're still not happy. You have to figure out what's what going on in their heads, what's triggering their behavior. You have to learn to speak cat.
"People who are trying to make the square cat fit in a round hole, they need to see the world the way their cats does," he said. "By actually seeing what they are responsive to, what they are reacting to, we can fix these problems a lot easier."
This suggestion is both figurative and literal. Galaxy says a collar camera like the Eyeminal can be an invaluable to learning what makes your cat tick. Not only can you see his reaction, you can see exactly what sparked it from his point of view. Once you have that information, you're on the road fixing whatever the problem might be.
Galaxy's twofold goal is both simple and lofty. He was to keep cats in their homes and he wants to find homes for shelter cats.
So what, would Cat Daddy tell every cat guardian if he could?
"Get more," he said without hesitation.
"My job is demystifying [cats], 'fixing,' making the problems less than so you bring more into your house so less die," he said. "That's all that I care about.
"In the process of getting more, learn the way they see the world and make it matter to you," he continued.
Galaxy also is dedicated to building an online community. While he can't personally respond to every post, he hopes that those who have seen his show and attended Cat Mojo 101 reach out to other cat guardians who might be approaching the end of their ropes.
"It's so important that we keep this ball rolling," he said. "The bottom line to all of this is to get more cats homes; kill fewer cats."
To learn more about Galaxy, who will soon start production on season three of "My Cat From Hell," and what he has to share about understanding cats, visit JacksonGalaxy.com. You also can connect and become part of his flourishing online community on Facebook (Facebook.com/JacksonGalaxyCatDaddy) and Twitter (@JacksonGalaxy).