I recently did some consulting for a pet food company who was designing advertising…for pets. In order to do so, they needed to know – do cats like to watch TV, and if so, what do cats like to watch? How do they visually experience what they see on a screen?
Cats watching TV isn’t a new concept – when I started working at an animal shelter 22 years ago, there were already small televisions in many of the cats’ rooms, playing videos of birds and squirrels. I think I had “Video Catnip” on VHS and the “Cat Sitter” DVD. While some of my cats and the shelter cats seem very interesting in television, other cats seem to barely register it. Is television fun for cats? Frustrating?
What does the science say?
Well, surprisingly, there is very little science about the use of television as enrichment for cats. In one study, 3.2% of owners reported that their cat enjoyed watching “tv, fish tanks, or indoor birds” but as you can see we are lumping apples and oranges there. In another study about enrichment that owners provided for cats, only one participant out of over 100 reported using videos to entertain their cat.
Luckily in 2008, Dr. Sarah Ellis and Dr. Deborah Wells did the only study to date looking specifically at how cats respond to visual stimulation in the form of moving images (aka video). Videos are often used as enrichment for other captive species such as chimpanzees and shelter dogs, but do the animals enjoy them? In the case of chimps, it sounds like yes, in the case of dogs, maybe a little.
In the study, 125 shelter cats were split into five groups of 25 cats each and exposed to one of five video enrichment conditions:
- No additional stimulation (no television)
- A television that was not turned on
- A television showing videos of humans
- A television of snooker balls moving on a table (similar to a pool table)
- A television showing videos of birds, rodents, fish, and cats
Each cat was observed every five minutes for three hours a day, for a total of 15 hours of observation per cat. At each observation point, the researcher noted what each cat was doing in their enclosure (e.g., watching the video, sleeping, grooming, moving).
What did the study find?
The results found that cats spent about 6% of their observed time looking at the television, and they were much more likely to look at the tv when the video was playing the moving snooker balls and the animal videos. The cats also appeared to habituate to the videos, such that they watched them more in the first hour they were turned on than in the second or third hours of daily observation.
Based on this study, we can conclude that many cats may enjoy videos as part of a nutritious enrichment diet, but only for a limited bit of a time. In the case of the shelter cats, there was other stimulation (such as visitors to the shelter, and many of the cats had feline “roommates”) that may have made the video seem less compelling. There may also be individual differences between cats – some may love videos, and others may not enjoy them at all.
Take my own three cats: Ruby LOVES videos, and although she prefers videos of birds and mice, she has also shown interest in everything from animated advertisements to the Great British Baking Show. Coriander only seems interested in the prey videos, and Scribbles does not seem to notice the television is on.
We’ve also seen recent excitement around cats’ responses to the videogame Stray, which like many video games features animated movement and sounds that may appeal, although we don’t know if the main protagonist being a cat is part of the appeal. The World Cup highlights also seem to appeal to some kittens!
What might cats like to watch on TV?
We can assume that certain types of videos will be more appealing in general to cats. There’s a reason all of those “cat babysitter” videos that you can now watch on YouTube have prey animals in them. Cats are likely to be most interested in the movement of animals that resembles what they would naturally like to hunt, such as small birds and rodents.
Cats are also likely attracted to videos with blue and green tones , since those are the colors they see best; other colors are likely to appear gray. Many cats will enjoy high-pitched squeaking and chirping sounds similar to those made by birds and mice. And they will likely enjoy quick movements across the screen, even when it’s snooker balls and not birds.
Movements and sounds are more likely to entice your cats than the fine details of a bird’s plumage. Our cats (especially when living exclusively indoors) are somewhat nearsighted, and so those details may be lost on them. Cats also have a higher “flicker rate” than humans; remember that a video is a series of still snapshots, but they are at a rate that appears smooth and continuous to us. But our cats are much more likely to process that video as a bunch of flickering single images than as smooth movement.
Do cats think the video is a real bird or mouse? Maybe? I’ve definitely seen cats (including my own) paw at the tv screen and look behind the tv as if the bird or mouse might be back there!
Using video enrichment for cats responsibly!
Although cats are likely used to some failure, since they only catch prey 30-50% of the time they hunt, my advice when using video enrichment for your cat would be:
- Don’t OVERUSE it
- Choose videos of animation or natural prey
- Use caution with videos of cats, as the sight or sounds of cats may be upsetting to some cats
- Watch your cat for signs of frustration, stress, or “obsession” – if your cat seems frightened, or is hitting at the screen, or won’t stop looking for the videos even when the television is turned off, your cat may not be enjoying the videos (or may be enjoying them TOO much to be safe).
- After the video, try playing with your cat with a physical toy that they can chase AND catch!
Much like the shelter cats, your own cat may enjoy a little time on the couch enjoying the tube. Although it’s not my first go-to recommendation for making our cats’ lives better, there’s nothing wrong with trying it every now and then. And if you’re like me, you might even find it strangely enjoyable to watch your cat watching tv.
PARTICIPATE IN THIS POLL ABOUT WHAT YOUR CAT LIKES TO WATCH ON VIDEO!!
Ellis, S. L., & Wells, D. L. (2008). The influence of visual stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 113(1-3), 166-174.
Shyan-Norwalt, M. R. (2005). Caregiver perceptions of what indoor cats do” for fun”. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 8(3), 199-209.
Strickler, B. L., & Shull, E. A. (2014). An owner survey of toys, activities, and behavior problems in indoor cats. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9(5), 207-214.