You’ve probably seen those videos online where a hapless pet cat attempts to hunt and kill a spider or mouse on a tablet or computer monitor. It’s entertaining for us to watch as the cat frantically tries to catch the creature on the screen, sometimes attempting to follow it onto the floor or searching behind the monitor to find out where that enticing prey animal has vanished to. There are even TV programmes and apps designed specifically for cats, purported to provide stimulation for bored kitties. There’s some dispute over how useful these are, with a few people suggesting that cats can even see TV pictures.
Can cats see TV? Yes, they can. Older screens may not have shown images in a way that cats could perceive them but modern screens are different. TV probably looks different to cats, with less vibrant colours and probably more blurring. Cats also detect motion better than we can.
You’ve landed on this pave because you have questions about cats and TV. Maybe you’ve noticed that your cat sometimes seems to track objects on the screen. Perhaps your cat is home alone during the day and you’d like to leave the TV on as entertainment for her. In any case, you have plenty of questions.
- Is it possible for cats to see the TV?
- What do TV images look like to them?
- How can you stop your cat from attacking the TV?
- Will your cat recognise you if you try to video chat with her?
Read on to learn the answers.
Can cats see TV?
Despite what some might claim, cats can indeed see the TV. I’ve seen quite a few people scoff at the idea, claiming that a cat’s vision can’t pick up the images. The confusion probably arises from the way analogue images were displayed on older cathode ray tube (CRT) screens. If you were to slow down a TV image on a CRT, you would see a dot of light move from one side of the screen to the other, then start again slightly lower down, and so on until it got to the bottom of the screen. Human vision is processed slowly enough by the brain that we can’t perceive the rapidly moving dot. Instead, we see the whole picture all at once. With these older televisions, a cat’s much faster perceptions might theoretically prevent them from seeing the image.
With modern televisions and mobile devices, everything is happening much more quickly. The images are created rapidly enough to fool even a cat’s super-sensitive vision. Whether or not cats could see images on old-style CRT screens or not, they can certainly see images now. I’ve witnessed cats tracking images and even trying to chase them beyond the edge of the screen (although I prefer to keep my own tablet out of the reach of curious paws).
Cats can certainly see the images on television and also on mobile devices. It’s not always clear that they know what they’re looking at, however. I’ve observed my friend’s Bengal kitty make a chattering sound when she sees birds outside the window; she makes the same sound in response to certain cartoons, apparently confusing anthropomorphic pigs and goats for her preferred prey. I’ve also seen cats who were deeply attached to their owners completely fail to recognise their favourite human via a video chat. Cats have truly amazing powers of perception but it seems they can be baffled by technology.
My personal theory is that while some cats can recognise some images, what cats are really perceiving is interesting movement. This would make a certain amount of sense, given the way a cat’s vision operates. A cat is long-sighted when compared to a human and won’t really be able to pick up details when the screen is too close. A cat’s vision is greatly enhanced when the object is moving, allowing them to pick up very small motions even on the periphery of their vision. They also don’t see colour in the same way that we do; while the world isn’t black-and-white, shades and tones are very different in the eye of a cat. Taken together, this may mean that they don’t really know what they’re seeing on TV — but they can certainly tell when it’s moving in an appealing (and appetising) way.
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Should I let my cat watch TV?
As long as the cat isn’t simply staring at the screen all day instead of getting active stimulation, I don’t see any harm in letting your cat watch as much TV as she wants. In the first place, stopping her from watching television would probably mean limiting her time with you. Cats are often drawn to the TV as much by what their humans are up to as by their own interest in what’s going on on the screen. Your cat probably isn’t terribly interested in the result of the local cup final or the denouement of that Netflix series — but she does know that her family has all gathered in one spot to watch the screen. Surely something interesting must be going on if everyone has got together to enjoy it. If not, there will certainly be lots of laps to snuggle up on and maybe a few unattended snacks to investigate.
In fact, I can see TV being quite a positive influence on your cat, especially if she’s an indoor kitty. My own cats seem to prefer old-school toys such as stuffed mice and fishing-rod teasers. However, if your own cats aren’t thrilled with these devices, you might try putting on a nature programme with lots of small animals or birds.
If you have one of those extra-tough mobile devices (or just an old one you’re no longer terribly attached to) there are a few apps aimed at the feline audience. These show appealing footage of flighty sparrows, nimble mice and other tempting creatures for your cat to try and chase. If you do try to use these, be aware that cats are not careful around electronics. They are quite capable of knocking your phone onto the floor while trying to chase an animated spider. Do not let your cat play with a device that has a cracked screen, as she could cut her paws on the glass.
I’d caution cat owners against substituting screen time for more active play. Cats do need a certain amount of physical exercise to be at their physical and emotional best. A cat who doesn’t get at least half-an-hour of vigorous play, aided with teaser toys or whatever your cat prefers, is apt to develop a range of issues. Without an outlet for her nervous energy, she may become anxious or aggressive. Without a little kitty cardio time, her heart, lungs, circulation and general fitness levels may suffer. TV time might be mentally stimulating but it may not encourage enough movement to keep your cat healthy.
I suppose my only other concern regarding cats and TV might be the light levels. TVs and mobile devices emit quite a high level of light, which could disrupt your cat’s sleep or affect her mood. You should probably make sure everything is turned off before bed so your cat won’t be tempted to stay up all night — and possibly keep you awake too.
Should I use TV to keep my cat company?
Some people I know have mooted the possibility of using their TV or mobile device to give their cat a little company while they’re at work or to reassure their pets when they’re away. Personally, I don’t think this is a terrible idea. Some people object to the idea of allowing a cat unsupervised screen time, but it’s not as if they’re toddlers. A cat is not going to miss out on her education if she watches too many cartoons.
If you do leave the screen on for your kitty while you’re away, I would offer the same caveats mentioned previously. Cats don’t understand that it’s bad to knock phones or tablets onto the floor and can’t protect their delicate paw pads from broken glass. Of course, your TV should be out of the cat’s reach (if such a thing is possible) and secured very firmly to the wall. Humans, as well as animals, are injured by falling flat-screen TVs so be sure that your TV can’t be knocked down.
I have actually arranged an international video conference with a friend of mine and a cat. The friend had taken an extended trip overseas and the cat, being strongly attached to my friend, was rather unsettled. I had moved into the flat to keep an eye on the poor kitty; while she and I get on very well it just wasn’t the same. My friend and I hit upon the idea of a video conference using my laptop. The cat did not appear to recognise my friend’s face on the screen, unfortunately. She was more receptive to a voice call, which put her at more ease. She was a little cross with me for somehow hiding her usual person on the computer, though. Based on this experience, I’d suggest that audio of your voice might be better for reassuring your cat. Games and shows might be useful distractions but your voice will comfort her.
If you find that TV or mobile apps aren’t keeping your cat entertained while you’re away, try going back to basics with some physical toys. Puzzles that reward her curiosity with small snacks or motorised toys that she can chase are great for passing the time until you come home. If all else fails, there’s my preferred solution: get a second cat.
Article by Barbara Read
Barbara Read is the heart and soul behind CatBeep.com. From her early love for cats to her current trio of feline companions, Barbara's experiences shape her site's tales and tips. While not a vet, her work with shelters offers a unique perspective on cat care and adoption.