Screen Time: Don’t Overdo It

Some cats enjoy watching action on a TV or computer screen, but how much is good for them?


Research has shown that some cats in windowless settings, such as shelters, really enjoy the distractions of watching typical prey like birds, rodents, and fish on a screen. They’re bored and crave something to occupy their minds — and satisfy their natural instincts.

Older cats with limited mobility or eyesight might also benefit from apps or videos that showcase other animals, says Tufts Animal Behavior Clinic head Stephanie Borns-Weil, DVM. There certainly are plenty of YouTube videos and other options geared toward a feline audience.

Last year, videos for cats were watched more than 55 million times, while videos geared toward canine audiences reached only 6 million views. But do cats in general respond to fish, birds, lasers, and other objects flitting across an iPad, iPhone, or YouTube-enabled television screen?

“They don’t all ‘get it,’” Dr. Borns-Weil says. Though their predatory drive may draw some of them to the screen just as much as it causes them to chase down a laser beamed around the room, some cats are simply not that interested in an animal or object they know is impossible to truly catch.

Yes, “it’s something moving and something they can chase, but I don’t think they’re necessarily riveted by things that don’t involve social play,” says the doctor. They might much prefer a moving string, dangled feathers, or your big toe moving under the coverlet.

Indeed, there are some cats absolutely blind to the charms of screen programs, preferring a window view, a toy, and a nap. For cats who do enjoy screen time and are healthy and not in a shelter environment, Dr. Borns-Weil’s view is mixed.

“It does provide some movement, and so I think it can be part of an overall program of play,” she says, especially when an owner is not available. “But it’s not a substitute for a high-enrichment life. Cats need to be moving more than just in front of the television. If someone is relying a lot on automated screen-type entertainment for their pet, I would just want to make sure they’re still giving their cat the time it needs. Screen time is not interactive and does nothing to support the bond between a cat and her owner.

“Cats are social and need actual interaction,” Dr. Borns-Weil says. “Will they put up with less? Absolutely. But it is stressful for them because they need exercise and communication and games with three-dimensional beings. In the best of all possible worlds, I would rather use interactive play than rely on a screen. It’s fine for a bit when you’re gone,” but not as the centerpiece of a cat’s environmental enrichment.

Some screen time options
The cost of screen time for your cat is hard to beat, ranging from free to just a few dollars.

Pocket Pond, which is free for Android or iOS, is something you and your cat can enjoy together. Your pet will like swiping at the koi that swim across a virtual pond. You may also enjoy watching your purring Picasso at work on Paint for Cats, just $1.99 from iOS.

There are 10 color palettes to choose from that record the moving imprints your cat’s paws make as she tries to capture the virtual mouse scurrying around. And you can print out your pet’s masterpiece if you like. YouTube provides short and hours-long videos catering to feline viewers. Paul Dinning Wildlife videos, for instance, feature mice and various types of birds doing what you’d expect. Critters range from snacking mice to dancing peacocks.

YouTube also has CAT GAMES, an assortment of games featuring a squeaking mouse darting across the screen and fish gliding and darting through water. Given that many cats have to spend large chunks of time alone when work, errands, or social events take you from home, adding screen time to a left-alone pet’s daily repertoire could make the day go by in a more entertaining way.

But as Dr. Borns-Weil says, it shouldn’t be the mainstay of your cat’s environmental enrichment. The most important ingredient for that is you. Even watching some of these videos with your cat and reacting excitedly to her responses will make life more interesting for her than just plopping her in front of the TV.


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