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Cats reign supreme as the favorite subject of irresistible internet videos; it's only natural to wonder if they might enjoy watching videos, too. But can cats see TV and understand what they're watching on the screen? Do cats watch TV and think, "Wow, what a great show?"
Inquiring cat parents want to know if — and why — their furry friend is entertained by screens, and what's so appealing about them.
Can Cats See TV?
The short answer is "sort of." Many cats can and do engage in television programming, but they "don't bring the same perspective as humans to viewing," note the veterinarians at VetBabble. Cats are entertained by the color and movement, and although cats are very smart, they do not have the cognitive and reasoning capabilities to process images and sounds into more complicated thoughts. While watching a red cardinal flit about on a tree branch, your cat isn't thinking, "What a beautiful red bird!" Instead, your cat's thinking is more along the lines of "Small object! Movement! Must catch!"
Like humans, cats use vision and hearing to engage with TV, but cats are also drawn to electronic screens because some videos appeal to a cat's innate hunting instincts.
Vision is a primary source of television engagement, so when you wonder if cats can see television, it's helpful to think about how their eyes work. The way in which cats see the world begins when light hits the retina. The two main photoreceptor cells in the retina, cones and rods transfer the light into electric signals. These electric signals are sent to the brain, allowing cats to "see" the images in front of them.
As explained in the Merck Veterinary Manual, a cat's cone cells give them "excellent visual acuity and binocular vision," and give them the ability to see different colors. Because they have fewer cones than humans, cats can't see a full spectrum of color, but kitties can see red, green and blue. However, cats have more rods than humans, which is why they have much sharper vision than humans in dim light — up to six times better than their pet parents, says Merck.
Because of the structure of their eyes, cats are more likely to engage in television that contains a combination of red, green and blue paired with swiftly moving objects. A lot of children's TV shows, for instance, contain primary colors and quick movements, so don't be surprised if your fur baby enjoys watching kids' programming.
A cat's sense of hearing is one of its strongest assets, which is why the sound of TV also attracts cats. "A cat up to 3 feet away from the origin of a sound can pinpoint its location to within a few inches in a mere six one-hundredths of a second," points out Animal Planet. "Cats also can hear sounds at great distances — four or five times farther away than humans." Because of their exemplary auditory acuity, a cat's ears will perk up when they hear sounds on TV that occur in nature.
When your cat sees that red cardinal flying from branch to branch, they're hard-wired to whack it out of the air. Because of their strong sense of hearing, cats can determine the size and location of prey just by hearing small movements like a mouse rustling in the grass. If your favorite TV show contains the sound of the cardinal flapping its wings and whooshing through the branches, a cat's going to be in hunting heaven.
The most common prey for cats are birds, small mammals and fish, all of which make for good cat TV programming. Can cats see TV without trying to ambush and attack what's on the screen? Definitely. While some cats go nuts for on-screen antics, others are content to watch the activity with an air of calm, and still others may not be interested in TV at all. Depending on their temperament and the depth of their hunting instinct, your cat may or may not engage with television or other electronic screens.
Some cats may show interest in programming that features other cats, although researchers have not yet determined whether cats visually recognize other cats, or even themselves. Seeing another cat on the screen probably wouldn't activate their hunting instinct anyway because in addition to hearing, a cat's sense of smell is one of its strongest advantages. Cats have over 200 million scent receptors (compared to the 5 million that humans have), giving them the ability to detect prey from great distances. But "even if they can identify other cats on television, the majority of cats are unlikely to feel threatened by them as they would a neighbor's cat because they cannot detect their scent or other cues that tell them it is a real cat," says Cats Protection UK. Until technological advances perfect smell-o-vision, your cat shouldn't react too negatively to seeing other cats on the screen.
Enrichment Benefits of TV
An influential 2008 study conducted by the School of Psychology at Queen's University Belfast on how indoor shelter cats respond to visual stimulation revealed interesting results on the subject of cats and television. The researchers determined that two-dimensional screen time does provide a level of enrichment for cats, particularly those images with "elements of prey items and linear movement." This study also revealed that most cats' interest waned after three hours, a pretty long stretch of time given that cats are only active about seven hours a day, resulting in some kitty binge-watching.
Since this study, other cat behaviorists have incorporated videos into cat enrichment programs. Videos can play an important role in your cat's environmental enrichment, explain the researchers leading the Indoor Pet Initiative at Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Watching "live action" videos indulges their hunting instinct and is especially beneficial if your kitty doesn't have easy access to a view outdoors.
These days, you don't have to look too far to find television programming aimed at cats themselves. There are dedicated visual and audio streaming options, for example, specifically curated for your feline friend. If you don't have a television handy, there are plenty of interactive game apps for your cat that are available for download as well.
Do cats watch TV to chill out? If your cat has anxiety, television may help calm them during stressful situations, explains the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. During thunderstorms or loud constructions, the "white noise" of the TV may drown out the unpleasant sounds around your cat. Leaving on the TV when you're away from home can also be beneficial if your kitty needs some extra comfort and enrichment.
When your cat engages in electronic stimulation, it's important to pay attention to their behavior. Because cats are such instinctive hunters and love to swat at birds on-screen or hunch down to pounce on an animated squirrel, they may get frustrated when they are unable to catch their electronic prey, points out International Cat Care. Instead of a sole source of entertainment for kitties, think of TV time as a supplement to other enrichment activities that you can engage in together. Nothing replaces in-person, interactive engagement between you and your furry friend. Balance electronic stimulation with old-fashioned playtime, such as chasing stuffed catnip toys or setting up a cat perch from which they can observe a real-life nature show.
As more and more programming is created with cats in mind, it's nice to know that you and your cat can snuggle up together for some downtime. With all the options at your fingertips, there's bound to be a show you can both agree on.
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is an award-winning writer, educator, and long-time cat mom. She's a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA) and has written for industry-leading companies and organizations, including What to Expect and STEM Read. Find and follow Christine on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien