LOS ANGELES — Many cats are tail talkers. If those tails start to twitch and wag, watch out for fangs and claws, warns cat behaviorist Jackson Galaxy.
If you try to pet a cat when its tail is wagging and get bitten, “You had it coming,” says Galaxy, who helps solve behavior problems, human and feline, on his Animal Planet TV show, “My Cat From Hell.”
When a cat’s angry enough to wag its tail or the fur on its back stands up, its ears flatten and eyes dilate, the owner needs to figure out what’s wrong, he says.
Galaxy figures cats and owners equally share the blame for relationships gone wrong, but when it comes to changing behavior, cats are the easier students – by a wide margin.
His house call kit is a guitar case loaded with cat toys and treats. But there’s no magic wand in the box, he says. It takes time and hard work. “You get what you give.”
Galaxy, 46, has an usual job – and he’s an unusual guy. He’s 6-foot-5, bald, wears specs and ear hoops, sports a long goatee, prefers bowling shirts and sneakers, has tattoo “sleeves” and has started tats on his legs so that he’ll one day have a “full suit.”
He plays the guitar, has a degree in acting and has been addicted to drugs, alcohol and food. He’s also written an autobiography, “Cat Daddy.”
Galaxy was working at an animal shelter in Colorado more than 15 years ago when a man walked in with a cat in a cardboard box. The cat, named Benny, had been hit by a car and was “unbondable,” the man said. Benny and Galaxy spent the next 13 years bonding and developing what Galaxy calls “cat mojo.”
He had a practice with a holistic vet before moving to Los Angeles in 2007 and opening a private consulting firm. He was at a pet adoption fair when he met the friend of a friend who introduced him to reality TV producer Adam Greener. “My Cat From Hell” began airing in spring 2011. In each episode, viewers witness owners struggling to find domestic harmony with their cats.
Emilie Bandy and Mike Petriello are fans of Galaxy’s show. For seven months, they tried to turn their New York City apartment into a peaceful place for their cats, Olive and Pepper, but Olive attacked Pepper every chance she got. They went to the vet, gave Olive doses of Prozac, searched for answers online and in bookstores, slept in separate rooms so they could each care for one cat, and put planning for their September wedding on hold.
“We were genuinely afraid for the cats’ lives if we left them together,” Bandy said.
When they learned Galaxy was filming season three of “My Cat From Hell” in Manhattan, they made a video and submitted it. Their problem with Olive and Pepper became the summer’s first episode. In it, Galaxy:
• Gives Olive a food dish with a middle bump so she has to eat around it, ensuring that Pepper finishes and leaves first.
• Shows the couple how to build trees and platforms where Pepper can escape if Olive starts to attack. “Build a vertical world,” Galaxy says.
• Tells them to stop running every time Olive whines, scratches or throws a temper tantrum. “Don’t positively reinforce bad behavior,” he says.
It’s been three months since the last catfight. Bandy and Petriello are back in the same bedroom, wedding planning is again in full swing, and the couple spends hours each day playing with both cats in the same room. The cats may never be fast friends, but they are coexisting – and Pepper’s confidence is growing.
Cats have an attention span of about three seconds, so Galaxy believes punishment is pointless. “Count to 10, clean up, forgive and move on,” he says. Air in a motion-detecting can is great for disciplining cats the instant they misbehave, he says.
Despite cats’ short attention span, there is nothing wrong with their memory, he says. Most cats can be taught almost anything, he says, but he doesn’t believe a cat should be taught to walk on a leash or jump through hoops just to satisfy an owner. Most cats will feel the same way, he says, but some will enjoy the lessons and the activities.
Galaxy’s tattoos include 15 cats (Benny will be on his leg) but he also has three real ones, along with a blind dog.
Does he think cats will one day become doglike and gather in parks, take obedience classes, share play dates and go surfing?
“I totally hope not,” he says. “I love cats for who they are. I want everyone to embrace what I call the raw cat.”