Editor’s note: Marilyn Krieger, a certified cat behavior consultant who writes the Ask a Behaviorist column for Catster, has teamed up with world-renowned fellow cat behavior expert Pam Johnson-Bennett to write this article, which we at Catster agree is an important issue to address.
Cats and the Internet. Is there a more perfect pairing? Perhaps you’ve captured a video of your cat, a friend’s cat, or even some random kitty doing something cute, smart, or dangerous. Your video might become tomorrow’s viral video hit.
You don’t have to love cats to know that they’re enjoying a big surge in popularity, and much of that is from an increased media exposure. For many, this is a positive trend because it puts cats “on the front page” of many social media sites. A few special kitties have become financially lucrative for their owners. Although cats have rightfully earned the status of Internet stars, their rise to fame has upsides and downsides.
Most videos of cats that you see on the web portray cats doing sweet, funny and brilliant activities, and millions of people love watching them. Some, such as the Maru series, highlight cute and natural cat behaviors.
The Shell Game and the Jenga Cat showcase feline intelligence. Simon’s Cat and Henri, the Existential Cat, remind us mortals not to take ourselves too seriously and encourage us to laugh at everyday life. An abundance of heart-warming videos focus on the sweet bonds between felines and people as well as other animals.
Heroic cat videos, especially ones that show kitties saving children, other human family members, or other animals are inspiring messages to spread throughout the Internet. One example celebrates a cat hero who saved an abandoned baby by climbing in the infant’s box, keeping him warm in freezing conditions. Others raise awareness of the need for compassion by featuring homeless cats, rescue work, and adoption events.
Footage of rare felines such as the Snow Leopard, captured with camera traps, let us see a world we would never otherwise witness. We are privileged to view these wild ones without interfering in their natural lives. These snippets help raise awareness of declining populations of wild cats and put a face to the plight of many animals who are at risk of disappearing from the planet.
Whether expertly filmed, remotely caught by a camera trap, or impulsively captured in the moment on a smartphone, cat videos get noticed. What could possibly be the downside?
When the cat-video trend began, short movies of cats playing in boxes or flushing toilets rocked the Internet. Those same videos are now passed over for more outrageous ones. The trend is accelerating as the market becomes saturated and viewers’ expectations increase.
Anyone with a camera or smartphone can make a cat video and post it to social media. This fabulous aspect of the Internet can also have serious and long-term real-life implications that extend beyond the camera lens. Another problem is that cats are sometimes filmed in stressful or dangerous situations.
In all fairness, the videographer may not realize a cat is at risk or stressed. For others, filming might remove them from the reality of what is being filmed. They are so focused that it doesn’t occur to them to put the camera down and physically help the cat.
Sadly, kitties can suffer from ongoing and unnecessary stress long after the filming stops. What looks funny in the moment might be traumatic and dangerous. One example is a video with nearly 265,000 views. It shows a cat being petted with an oven mitt. Obviously the cat is extremely stressed and doesn’t want to engage. The young videographer, ignoring the vocalizations and body language, continues to provoke the kitty until the cat attacks the mitt. The long-term effects of this behavior could be horrific. In the future, the cat might do everything possible to avoid any contact with people because he was taught to fear them. Understandably, if pushed to the limit, he might bite or scratch. If he does hurt someone, that could jeopardize his home situation. The price this cat may have to pay for the sake of a video might be a trip to the shelter, punishment, abandonment, or worse.
Numerous viral videos exist that show cats in risky and life-threatening situations. You probably saw the one produced by a popular camera company of a young man riding his bike through busy city streets with his cat wrapped around his shoulders. One loud honk, a swerving car, or an approaching dog is all it would take to frighten the kitty and place everyone — cat, owner, and drivers — in danger.
Another, filmed in a pet owner’s kitchen, features a small kitten dangling from a piece of meat that hangs from the mouth of a large dog. At first glance it might seem cute to some, it was dangerous for the kitten. The dog could have become aggressive toward the kitten, or shaken the meat so violently that the kitten was slammed against a wall. All animals, even gentle ones, can become aggressive when competing for the same resources.
More often, videos record cats who are purposely or accidentally put into stressful situations. Levels of anxiety vary — sometimes it’s short term and mild, other times severe and long-lasting. A video that recently went viral features a man wearing a realistic cat mask approaching his cats. The cats are frightened at the sight and immediately flee. In the background, people are laughing at the agitated response. Although the video might seem harmless and fun, the kitties are frightened and stressed.
The trend of stressing out cats for the sake of video popularity continues to gather momentum. Recent ones being shared on social media at an alarming rate highlight frightened responses to cucumbers. These videos show cats being extremely startled when they unexpectedly encounter cucumbers near their food bowls or when they walk into a room. To intentionally startle a cat is insensitive, but to frighten him in a place he views as safe, such as the feeding station or near his bed, is downright cruel.
Videos can raise awareness, entertain, and help get cats adopted — or they can exploit or stress out cats. View videos with a critical eye. Be aware of what you’re promoting when you film, watch, and share them. Think before filming. Capture those funny, brilliant, or unusual things cats do without causing stress or endangering the cats. If you believe a video is harmful in the moment or after the camera stops filming, speak up. Write comments on the video, let people hear what you have to say and why you believe it’s a bad situation. It’s also important to support responsible and positive videos by commenting and sharing those. Be a voice for the cats we love so much.
Pam Johnson-Bennett is the host of Animal Planet UK’s Psycho Kitty and the best-selling author of seven books on cat behavior. Read more about her on her site.
Marilyn, a certified cat behavior consultant, owner of The Cat Coach LLC, and author of Naughty No More!, solves cat behavior problems nationally and internationally through on site and Skype consultations.