I love watching animals because they're so transparent in their relationships. They don’t lie to save your feelings, they don’t hold grudges, they couldn't be passive-aggressive if they tried, and they perfectly mirror the energy of their environment. You get instant feedback as to whether something's working or not. No wonder I'm currently obsessed with My Cat From Hell. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a highly entertaining TV show featuring a tattooed rocker-turned-cat-behaviorist named Jackson Galaxy(!). I started watching it for ideas I could use with our own cats, but I got hooked because of how it addresses the universal themes of relationship, behavior, and happiness for both felines and humans. Here are some of the takeaways I got from the show (presented in cat terms, but easily transferable to us as well).
1. Everybody has to be invested for the relationship to work.
In most of the episodes, one person wants to give the problem cat away, and one wants to keep it. Jackson reinforces over and over again that each person has to develop their own relationship with the cat - especially when that means challenging assumptions about its personality or facing the fear of getting scratched. Ambivalence is not an option here; everyone has to get involved and do their own work.
2. A little willingness to compromise goes a long way.
Many of the people aren’t thrilled at first about putting cat furniture in their living room, or a litterbox in the middle of the floor. But when they see how their cat’s personality is transformed by a simple change in the environment, they stop caring quite as much about the purity of their mid-century decor. (And no, the litterbox doesn’t have to stay there!)
3. When you say “no” to one thing, say “yes” to something else.
When a cat is overly aggressive, Jackson plays with it to siphon off excess energy. When it jumps or scratches on prized possessions, he gives it a different object to focus on. A “no” by itself doesn’t pack much punch unless you back it up with a positive alternative.
4. Feeling stuck? Change your environment (and/or perspective).
Probably the number-one thing I see recommended on this show is the addition of vertical spaces for the cats to explore. This helps convert them from the mindset of scared “bush-dwelling” prey to confident “tree-dwelling” lords of the household jungle. They can perch up high and observe the action below before deciding if they want to get involved, and it gives them a sense of safety as they learn how to be big and take up space.
5. The relationships in your life mirror the energy you put into them.
Not to get all woo-woo, but animals can sense how you’re feeling and read your non-verbal cues. When people approach their cats with feelings of anger, fear, or annoyance, the cat reflects that emotion right back to them. The verbal brain can process about 40 bits of information a second, compared with 11 million bits from the non-verbal brain - and guess which one the cat is using? An attitude of openness, receptivity, and calm leadership goes a long way with both animals - and people.
6. Everybody wants to feel at home.
One of the biggest themes I saw was that the cats were lashing out because they didn’t feel like they had their own space or that they belonged. It was amazing to me how much subtle changes could affect their behavior once they felt secure in their place in the household.
My own success story:
Using these principles and tips from the show, my husband and I successfully turned my scaredy-cat Sophie into a fully participating member of the family (in four days!). When we gave her more vertical space to explore, she almost magically went from spending most of the day under the bed to claiming her space in the living room alongside her big rough-housing housemate, Mao-Mao. We also started playing more with Mao-Mao to give his energy a healthy outlet, and he's mostly stopped "playfully" stalking and attacking her at every opportunity. As I write this, they're peacefully napping less than three feet apart.
Hopefully there are some interesting parallels to be drawn in your own life or with your own relationships. What could you do to feel safer being seen by others? How could making a small change in your environment impact your mood? What relationships could use a little more compromise or positive energy?
My hope is that as I get more attuned to my cats’ needs and body language, I’ll get better at picking up non-verbal cues in the human world as well. In the meantime, it's reassuring and heartwarming for me to be reminded that no matter our species, we all need the same things: love, respect, safety, and the space to be ourselves.
Are you ready to make the transition from bush dweller to tree dweller and want some support along the way? I won't show up with extra furniture for your living room, but I can help you to feel more comfortable and at ease in the world. Check out my coaching offerings!