A Galaxy Far, Far Away

Were you thinking I’d decided to discuss the whole ‘cats are aliens’ debate? We are just their caretakers until the kitty overlords return? Let’s do that discussion one day – but today is not that day!

I wanted to say that a month ago we got an extended cable package that now lets me see the show ‘My Cat From Hell’ which is a much better show than you’d expect. I genuinely dislike reality TV, but this show is a great exception. Not only is it a lot more sane than the title implies, but it’s entertaining and educational in the reality format. The ‘personality’ is Jackson Galaxy who is a ‘cat behaviourist’. I’ve been a fan of his for a long time – seeing some of his stuff on youtube. Picture a big, bald, tattooed, cuddly, retro hipster in California and you’d get him.

Jackson (you know, since we’re on a first name basis and all) gets it. That is pretty much the highest level of praise anyone can get from me in the realm of cat comments. He not only has excellent knowledge but also great instincts. And often, he sees that the problem is the people.

I’m not saying that the people are bad (though there have been a few who need to meet the kitty overlords!): I’m saying that many have worked themselves into untenable routines and behaviour patterns with their cats. Cats are complex and have personalities, issues and territories like we humans do – but we can’t apply human psychology to them. They are supreme hunters and this rules most their behaviour and relationships.

Jackson and I vary on one area: he never uses a water gun. I was about to say that he never uses negative reinforcement, but in the last episode I saw he used tacky tape on the table. I love that he uses this! We have used this for 17 years with our kitties to keep them off human food surfaces. Jackson gets that you should only use this if you’ve already provided kitty-friendly ‘up’ places for cats. And because it’s in-the-moment punishment, the cat ‘gets’ the lesson pretty darn fast.

I use a water gun. I use it rarely, carefully, precisely, and disproportionally less than positive reinforcement. I like a 10:1 ratio – but punishment is often front-loaded so more water squirts come at the beginning of the training. I pick only 1-2 behaviours to use it with so there are viable matrices of behaviour to learn along. If you set too many things that are squirt-worthy, the kitty gets confused and won’t get any of the lessons. They many even become sullen and vindictive. The behaviours I most often use it with are counters and kitchen tables. With Merlin, he first met the water bottle for the clawing-the-screen-open behaviour. There are rules for the use of water – never too often, use a negative word with it and the association will stick and the water squirt won’t need to be used for long, two minutes later follow with kindness so the water is the punisher and not you, and consistency, consistency, CONSISTENCY.

Understandably there are those who don’t agree with any form of negative reinforcement. I do. I have loved Skinners behaviorism since I was first introduced to it as a 17 year old. That’s not why I use it. I use it because mothers and family groups of any species use negative reinforcement to direct cubs into acceptable social behaviours. Mother cats often gently swat an over-rambunctious-play-aggressive kitten. We’re not cats; we can’t swat them because they will read it as attack or an invitation to more aggressive play. Instead there’s the water bottle – paired with the word ‘no’. Negative reinforcement trains most brains much quicker and more deeply than positive reinforcement. We’re all wired that way to keep us out of harms way – once we’ve encountered a danger the reinforcement ensures we avoid it a second time. It’s basic survival instinct in all animals. Therefore negative reinforcement is for the most negative behaviours – the ones that could endanger the cat or the ones which positive reinforcement has failed to remove. Do your research – do what’s right for you!

Do you have a cat from hell? I doubt it. But I’ll bet there are some behaviours you’d like to change or some tricks you’d like to learn. That’s the thing – good television like this can genuinely teach us. It can lead us to new discoveries. Better ways of doing things. We can all learn more about our fabulous felines!

I’ve set my PVR to record the one hour a week of that Galaxy far far away. I’ll be tuning in to meet kitties who are just misunderstood. I hope you too can tune in. (And I gave my kitties a long lecture about how lucky they are to have me… they looked bored and I’m sure summoned their mothership.)



Is it really morning? We are both blurry-eyed this morning because Merlin complained all night long. He did not want to stay in his room. It was not yowling. It was a sad, pathetic complaint of not wanting to be alone. He was just lonely and wanted company.

Do you watch Big Bang Theory? Merlin is a Beverly Hofstadter special – Needy Baby, Greedy Baby. Merlin is an attention hog – and doesn’t want to be away from the action or the love. He wants me there with him even if he’s sleeping in a sun puddle. He loves to sleep touching my toes. Or to nap on my lap. I should tell you that he gets my undivided attention in his room for 1.5-2 hrs a day, and he wants more. I think it might come from being abandoned outside.

At the same time, he’s got a few not-so-nice outside behaviours he’s brought with him. He has nipped me 2x now. Today and about 3 days ago. They are hard, but not hard enough to break skin. He seems surprised to get scolded when he does it. Love bite? Well, love bite or not, it’s an inappropriate behavior and needs to go. Poor J… he was brushing Merlin and suddenly he lunged and scratched J’s forearm. Hmmmm… wants to be brushed… loves to be brushed… and then attacks? I think this is all about the attention. Like some kids will use either positive or negative attention to feed their needs. Someone needs some gentle guidance and training.

I use both positive and negative reinforcement when training. Negative is voice tone … and until that alone is enough to stop a behaviour, I will use the water gun. I haven’t got it yet. I don’t find it’s needed much… and my personal philosophy is that there should be at least 2 positive reinforcement moments for each negative one.

Getting back to last night… I have to hand it to him… he kept it up for hours. Then it would die down until he’d start up again. This is a big downside of having him beside our bedroom. I checked him only once before bed … and the food, water, litter, sleeping spots, toys were all in good order. I can’t give in or I’ll be inadvertently training him to be the most annoying whiner who ever lived. I don’t think the 4 of us got much good rest… poor Shady and Nuala.

I hope this makes sense… I need another cup of coffee just to start thinking straight. In fact, I just poured coffee into my drinking glass… got half way to the top before I realized I needed a mug. Anyone else lived through this?

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Pyjama Swipe

Oscar is a puzzle – a charming, warm furry puzzle. Long ago I decided that part of this comes from being loved as a kitten but also at some time being treated less than well by a person. He becomes unsure and scared with some movements – approach from the front or even petting from above. You can see it in his eyes – or I can see it in his eyes now that I know him. It’s an imperceptible shift from happy bonding to ‘why did you touch me like that?’ and suddenly he is threatened.

It’s been weeks since I’ve seen any half-considered bite attempt. I think there were 4 total in the time he’s been with me. All of them (other than the first when he was coming-out-from surgery and anesthetic) were half-hearted and confused – like he didn’t know how to communicate with a person. I can see the confusion – he knows he trusts me but something makes him feel strange and uncomfortable. And each time I scolded him for it, he cowered back and hissed… a protective rather than angry stance. This was a learning process for him… and he’s done so well. He doesn’t like to be approached head-on – maybe a sad story there, but time will teach him differently.

The new thing is the pyjama swipe. It’s not every day, but it happens to both J and myself – maybe a total of 10 times so far. You are standing with him and interacting and suddenly there is a claw swipe at the back of the pant leg. I’ve got 2 minor scratches from it – and he gets scolded each time. He cowers down and away and looks so guilty that you want to give him a treat. (Of course I can’t – that would just be a cruel, inconsistent training error).

What on earth is this? J thinks it’s the movement of the pyjamas. I think it’s a confused way to try to get attention, since it always happens to me when he’s literally underfoot and I’m working on giving him his food, fresh water and puttering at the sink. It seems to happen when he’s clingy and wants attention. To be consistent, he gets scolded and then we leave the room. He’s learned that a slightly raised voice and ‘NO’ means that he’s in trouble, and he’s realized that it doesn’t mean he will be hit or harmed. So his fear is diminished.

I know how to train around it, but I still don’t know what it is. Any ideas?


Oscar in ‘paint’ (aka Natasha plays with the computer)