When he's not playing guitar in a band, Jackson Galaxy is solving cat problems. Or more properly and commonly, problems with cat owners.
Jackson is the Cat Daddy. He's the host of My Cat From Hell (first NZ episode tonight, Monday, on Animal Planet at 10.30), a buster of feline myths and an advocate for cats' wellbeing in every way.
If you have a mental image of what a cat-advocate looks like, it's probably not Jackson. Burly, shiny-bald, hiply dressed and with a dramatic beard and sleeve tattoos, he looks more like a muso or a Cuba Street barista. But then, why should a cat lover not look that way? And if your life's work is about demystifying and educating and shifting thinking, maybe it's a help to start out by taking people by surprise...
I talked to Jackson by phone the other day, and one of the first things he talked about was the embarrassment he encounters among people who approach him - the people looking for solutions to "cat problems".
"From when I first started, people were so embarrassed about calling a cat behaviourist," he says. "They'd lie to their husbands about it, pay me on the sly... So I realised my problem was going to be human a lot of the time."
In 15 years as a cat behaviourist, he says, much of his mission has been about teaching owners - who often are better informed about dogs - about their cats' ways, and getting rid of myths.
The overriding myth is that cats are socially aloof and fiercely independent. You've heard people say that, right? Nothing, he says, could be further from the truth - apart from when they're hunting, cats are highly social and just have a different way of showing attachment from dogs. "Cats can be masters of detached love."
Which leads to another myth: that there are, or should be, "cat people" and "dog people". "Why would you want to choose a side?" he wonders. "I'd feel incredibly sad without both cats and dogs in my life. Let's be animal people."
The two big issues he deals with in cats are aggression and "litter box avoidance". In an episode of My Cat From Hell, Jackson watches as a normally friendly cat lashes out at its owners. It turns out that the cat is a female that the owners have never got round to having neutered. Jackson prescribes neutering and a cleanup of areas where the cat (and neighbourhood toms) had sprayed. Things start improving; much of the cat's aggression was hormonal.
Neutering seems to be as big a problem in the US, relatively, as it is in New Zealand. The best thing you can do for cats' welfare, Jackson says, is to neuter. He's on the board of FixNation, a non-profit organisation that aims to neuter stray and feral cats - one of a range of groups that have recognised overpopulation as the biggest threat to cat welfare and try to do something about it. When the huge numbers of cats are brought down, then fewer will end up being put to sleep, Jackson says. "I want a no-kill planet."
Like any advocate of neutering, he's up against some obstructive beliefs - that neutering is cruel, or that it deprives an animal of its true nature or its right to procreate. "I'm about asking people who love their animals to expand that circle of compassion. If your cat isn't neutered, every time you let it out of the house, you are killing other cats."
Along with the drive for neutering, Jackson backs projects to care for feral cats and opposes the practice of de-clawing domestic cats. "Scratching is an essential element of cats' communication, problem-solving, health, and security issues," Jackson says on his website. He urges people to look for other ways of avoiding damage to their furniture from cat scratches.
I pose a couple of cat care questions to Jackson before our phone conversation ends. Do cats suffer depression? "Absolutely, I've seen it time and again. And I've seen cases of post-traumatic stress disorder."
What can an owner do about a cat that keeps chewing things - such as electric cords? "Well there's PVC sheathing, that's easy. But second, why is the cat doing that? It could be a condition that's called pica - a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. There's no known cause or way of easing it." He advises taking the cat for a blood test to check whether there's a mineral deficiency that the cat is trying to compensate for, and consider whether the cat could be anxious or bored.
And if the cat is bored? "I'm big into play therapy," says Jackson. "If you want your cat to have a full life and a satisfying existence, play with it."
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