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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Cats, Once YouTube Stars, Are Now an ‘Emerging Audience’

Whenever Courtney Cirone grabs her iPad, her cat Cooper runs over as though a bag of treats had just been shaken. He wants to watch YouTube, specifically videos of squirrels and tiny birds scurrying about. “His eyes get super big, and he moves his head back and forth following the animals,” Cirone says. “He ducks his head down low like he’s hiding. One time he looked at me, meowing, like, ‘HELP ME CATCH THIS BASTARD.’”

Cooper paws relentlessly at the screen, sometimes lunging at it head-first in an attempt to catch his digital prey. He loves these videos (along with clips of Dr. Phil). He’s so obsessed that Cirone limits his viewing to three times per week, because he sits very close and she’s cautious about protecting his eyes. When she turns her iPad off, he even sulks. If this sounds strange, it is and it’s not: Cats, famously the subjects of online videos, now sit on the other side, watching.


Beyond all the content for humans, there's a growing world on YouTube specifically for our feline friends. Loved by certain cat owners and occasionally championed by veterinarians and animal scientists, these videos tap into cats' instincts to stalk, chase, and hunt. Cat-targeted footage of small animals is particularly popular on the platform, posted by channels like Little Kitty & Family, Handsome Nature, and Videos for Your Cat. One of the most prolific creators, Paul Dinning, has posted hundreds of videos for cats, including an eight-hour “Bird Bonanza” that’s amassed almost 7 million views. According to YouTube’s Trends and Insights team, Dinning created eight of the 10 most-viewed videos for cats in 2019.

Animated videos formatted like games are also popular. One channel, Cat Games, has videos that entice cats to paw at everything from goldfish and lady bugs to leprechaun mice and gingerbread men. There’s also a Quidditch game and others based on Pac-Man, Minecraft, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones.

Cat Games creator Max Gomboev, a motion designer from Russia, first started making these videos as a tribute to his late cat. After seeing how much other cat owners liked them and the experience they provided over cat-targeted mobile apps, like Cat Fishing 2, which offer much less variety, he started making videos more regularly. “It's easier than installing an app, and you can show my videos on a TV,” Gomboev says. “Usually, I create a new video every 10 days. Cats like to watch something new.”

Earnest Pettie, the Trends and Insights lead at YouTube, has noticed the trend, which includes not only games but relaxation music. There’s also ASMR for cats. Pettie says a lot of creators and channels are jumping in, and he considers it a “very interesting, emerging category of content.” In 2019, videos containing the phrase “videos for cats” were viewed over 55 million on the platform, up 41 percent from 2018. “We now have this world where cats are an emerging audience,” Pettie says, “and movies for cats are an emerging trend.”

Of course, cats are famously finicky; surely not all of them enjoy YouTube. But some research, to say nothing of the trove of comments about cats’ positive reactions, makes clear that many do. A 2008 study of shelter cats concluded these videos hold enrichment potential for indoor cats, and cat professionals and organizations recommend them.

Ingrid Johnson, a cat behaviorist and vet technician at a cat-specific clinic, says videos are more fulfilling for cats than laser pointers. Her clinic used to sell the same type of videos on DVD (back when DVDs were a thing). When paired with toys and treats, Johnson says, the videos complete the picture of a more enriching environment.

Videos are also recommended by the Best Friends Animal Society and the Indoor Pet Initiative out of Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which works to enhance the welfare and environments of indoor pets. Meghan Herron, a veterinarian and professor working on the initiative, believes YouTube taps into feline hardwiring. "Cats aren't domesticated quite as much as our K9 friends,” she says. “That predatory instinct is still very much in tact, so it's just this innate part of their brain that responds to fast movement. It triggers the predatory sequence of stopping, stalking, staring, pouncing, and grabbing.” According to YouTube, videos targeted at dogs garnered only 6 million views last year.

For pet owners with especially energetic cats, YouTube can even be a savior. Brittany Gall’s 2-year-old ginger cat Jasper has an insatiable appetite for playtime, and she needed a hands-off way to keep him entertained while she’s at work or out for a while. “I was thinking that I wish I could just put on a movie for him like a kid, and then I realized that probably exists on the internet somewhere,” she says.

Now she puts cat-targeted YouTube videos on for Jasper a few times weekly. He loves them so much that he’ll sit in front of the TV or in between Gall and her laptop to signal that he wants to watch. It’s just one of the cute and funny behaviors that make these videos as fun for humans. Cat owners love watching their cats watch YouTube. As Gomboev puts it, “It's like watching Twitch gamers, but funnier.”

My own cat, Tuna, is also a fan. She’s not a pouncer; she prefers to stalk and stare. She crouches down and carefully follows the motion with her eyes, similar to how she plays with other toys like dangling strings and laser pointers. Even though she’s lazy about it—and everything, really—the videos are welcome stimulation. Catnip-filled balls and the beloved cardboard boxes aren’t going anywhere soon, but it’s clear cats are going digital. They have YouTube and mobile apps, and just last week, Spotify announced pet playlists that can be tailored to each animal's species and personality. There are even teeny-tiny VR headsets for cats. Now, if only their paws were touchscreen-compatible.

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