How Cats Work

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When my wife and I moved in together a year and a half ago, I became the co-owner of two cats. There’s Mancha, an extroverted love-bug who greets visitors at the door and spends most of his time either asleep or snuggling up to whoever’s around. Unfortunately, for about 30 minutes a day, he acts like a maniacal banshee, shrieking at nothing, doing laps around the house, and chewing on the other cat. The other cat is Chula, a curmudgeon who’s usually nowhere to be found. I assume she’s off in a dark room somewhere, listening to The Cure and contemplating how unfair it is that she’s trapped in a world inhabited by other life forms.

For several months after the cats moved in, I had no idea what they wanted from me. Their food dish would be full and their litter box would be empty, but still they’d approach me and meow, obviously with some need unfulfilled or desire untended. I’d pet them, but they’d back away, annoyed. So I’d sit there blinking until they gave up and wandered off.

My whole life I’ve been a dog person, and until I started living with cats, I had no idea how big of a difference there was between the two species. Dogs are open books: all they really want is your approval (and to eat whatever you’re eating, regardless of whether they’d like it). Most of the time, a dog’s goal is to make its owner happy. This is why they’re popular pets.

Cats, on the other hand, don’t give a shit about you. Technically speaking, this should make them terrible pets. But luckily for them, evolution has made them adorable. As a bonus, cats are also lower maintenance than dogs, which can make owning them worthwhile in some cases.

Now that I’ve spent some time with cats, I’ve started to understand most of their desires (to go outside, a bite of fish, to break my focus whenever I’m working), but I’m still baffled about how to make Mancha calm down when he’s hyper and how to turn Chula more personable.

So it was with great interest that I watched a new show on Animal Planet called My Cat from Hell. It’s about the owners of problem cats–biting, scratching, hissing hellspawn–who want to make their felines into normal, loving pets. So these folks call a cat specialist to their house to assess the situation and tell them what to do differently to make their cats stop being total assholes.

This cat whisperer fella is a fat, bald, tattooed hipster named Jackson Galaxy. (I’ll take a moment to let the absurdity sink in). The thing is, unlike me and most cat owners out there, this guy actually has a grounded understanding of why cats do what they do, and how to shape their behavior.

Based on his impressive results in the first episode, I learned that cats primarily want what we all want: to feel safe. To achieve this, the owners of horrible cats had to arrange their furniture so the felines could circle around the room without touching the floor. This makes them feel like they have escape options if–heaven forbid–someone turns on a vacuum on the floor. Mr. Galaxy also stresses the importance of body language when engaging with a cat and how to hold them properly (cup them to your chest, letting their feet dangle). It’s all good stuff, and I’ve found some of it useful when dealing with my (admittedly less than hellish) cats.

In hindsight, Mr. Galaxy’s prescriptions make a sort of obvious, “why didn’t I think of that?” sense. But count me pleasantly surprised that some weirdo named Jackson Galaxy could cue the world in to what’s going on behind feline eyes. Now if only he’ll show me how to pep Chula up and chill Mancha out, I’ll be a Jackson Galaxy acolyte.

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