YouTube is filled with content aimed at dogs, cats, and their owners. The varieties are endless. Birds alight at a feeder, a GoPro hidden nearby to record their comings and goings. An invisible hand drags a string toy back and forth. Fish in a koi pond bobble to the surface of a pond. A camera moves smoothly through a park, capturing trees and squirrels. These videos are long, often over four hours, and the most popular ones have millions of views. I put on at least one video per day, which amounts to, at minimum, 28 hours of pet TV per week. Most YouTubers would kill for those numbers.
After about five minutes, he curled up in my lap, bored. But I wasn’t bored. After the video ended, I put on another. And another. There were so many videos for cats and dogs. I sat on the couch, watching Graymalkin watch TV.
For both of us, it was a portal into the strange, sometimes eerie world of The Algorithm. In one video, an enormous cockroach skittered across the screen, freaking us out. In another, an otherwise tranquil recording of a bird fountain, a Minion toy loomed ominously above the birds. Every few minutes, the footage would jump cut to a slightly different angle, making it look like the Minion teleported a few inches to the left or right. Eventually, I selected so many videos from Japanese creators that YouTube, confused, started serving me ads in Japanese. While I tried to follow the plotlines of commercials in a language I don’t speak, Graymalkin swished his tail, impatient for images that triggered his hunting instinct.
Eventually I noticed the viewer counts on the cat videos: hundreds of thousands, sometimes even millions, of views. Many of the videos came from the same channels, and these top channels were monetizing their content by running ads. How much money, I wondered, were these creators making from pet TV? Had they stumbled upon success by accident, or had they worked hard to win the chaotic gamble of making money through YouTube? And were animals really watching these videos for hours at a time?
RelaxMyDog and RelaxMyCat both post new videos almost every day. No two are the same, but many follow a similar formula. The first element is either still photos or slow footage of expansive natural landscapes, sometimes with wild animals in the background. The second element is slow, soothing piano or strings, the kind of music you’d hear at an upscale spa. The audio loops infinitely and the video plays on and on, sometimes for up to fifteen hours.
Ahmed really is a savvy businessman who saw an opportunity, then threw everything he had at dominating it. Though RelaxMyDog now has 587,000 subscribers and RelaxMyCat has 472,000, they started out much smaller. “I self-funded it, had no investors. I 100% owned the company. It’s luckily, over the years, got bigger and bigger,” Ahmed said, video-chatting me from his temporary home in Kiev. Music for Pets is headquartered in Manchester, in the UK, but Ahmed travels frequently for work. He spent the beginning of 2020 in Brooklyn, but then saw the COVID-19 writing on the wall and left the country. Fortunately, Ahmed told me, many of Music For Pets’ fifteen employees – including filmmakers in Indonesia, South Africa, and Romania – work remotely. Music For Pets is a complex operation, with lots of cogs and levers. Luckily, Ahmed can make sure all those cogs are turning properly from anywhere in the world.
It’s easy for me to see – and sense – the human appeal. Focusing on a sunlit beach and mellow music is exactly what my meditation app asks me to do. I seem to get more out of these videos than Graymalkin, who wanders away after he realizes he can’t actually commit any bird murders. And I am not the only one who feels this way, according to Ahmed. “We see a lot of comments where people are like, ‘Look, I don’t have a dog. I enjoy watching this while I’m high,” he said. But motivations notwithstanding, enough viewers have clicked on RelaxMyDog and RelaxMyCat videos to generate a business that Ahmed says is valued at seven to eight million dollars.
Bini told me that videos of prey, or objects that move like prey (such as string dragged across the screen), help cats exercise their basic predatory instincts. And though she creates content with cats in mind, other species react, too. Bini sent me a list of videos depicting other animals, like a peacock, a praying mantis, a dog, and a lizard, interacting with her videos.
However, Seksel says that the way cats and dogs perceive video is starkly different than the way we perceive it. Both species have a far sharper sense of smell than we do, which means that they rely on olfaction – a sense that video doesn’t cater to at all. They also hear a far broader range of frequencies than humans: dogs can hear up to 45,000 Hz (hertz), while cats hear up to 64,000 Hz. (We only hear up to 23,000 Hz.) Furthermore, the placement of both cats’ and dogs’ eyes means that their field of vision is much wider than a human’s, allowing them to sense more peripheral motion. “[Cats and dogs] live in their world. They hear ultrasound and infrasound sounds that you and I can’t even detect,” said Seksel. “Maybe the birds outside are making noises that we can’t hear, but the animal can hear.”
Seksel said that pet TV likely caters more to our understanding of entertainment than to a cat or dog’s. “I think our expectations of what the animals will do are wrong,” she explained. “It’s based on, ‘Well, I can sit and watch a TV show, I can watch a movie.’ But even with humans, if the movie doesn’t have something that changes every five to seven minutes, you lose interest. Same with video games.”
Ultimately, the audience that pet TV caters to isn’t pets. It’s us, the pet owners. As in the children’s publishing industry, the supposed target audience isn’t the one making choices. Little kids don’t have the purchasing power to buy books, so publishers market to their parents. Similarly, cats and dogs don’t have the opposable thumbs necessary to put on games or videos. Their owners are the ones who scroll through YouTube results and pick the option that seems best. In this context, the “best” video might appeal to a cat or dog, but it might also be “the video that appeals most to people.”
However, Seksel said that just because there isn’t research to support pet TV, that doesn’t mean it’s completely ineffective. “We need to think about animals as individuals,” she said. “Just because my dog doesn’t react to TV doesn’t mean that someone else’s dog wouldn’t react to it.” Seksel stressed that dogs and cats, like humans, respond to stimuli based on their preferences. Those preferences don’t have to conform to logic, or to scientific consensus. “You might like playing golf, I might not like playing golf. That doesn’t mean golf is good or bad,” Seksel added.
In a follow-up email, Ahmed agreed with Seksel’s analysis. Because there isn’t much research on how cats and dogs react to TV, “we took the approach to pump out loads of experimental content because we have a huge audience,” he said. That way, Music For Pets could engage with as many animals’ preferences as possible.
Bini hopes the popularity of pet TV will spark more research into animals’ responses. “It would be exciting to learn the differences between human and animal motivations and perceptions,” she said. Ultimately, she believes that any entertainment that makes sedentary indoor animals move around is a good thing.
Speaking with Seksel made me realize that, for me, pet TV is a small way of asserting control. It makes me feel like I’m taking steps to improve the life of a living creature. Existing in a pandemic, especially a pandemic that so many people in my country seem hellbent on minimizing, makes control over anything seem like a pipe dream. I’ve lost the power to make life much better for myself, or for people that I care about. But my cat? I can fill his days with endless clips of birds. Maybe that means something to him. Even if it doesn’t, it is still soothing for my world to contract, to become as compact and frictionless as a cat watching a TV screen, birds of prey reflected in his lambent eyes.