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Cats helped build the internet. Now, the web is giving back.

“Mouse for Cats” gaming apps, ASMR, and YouTube videos of birds are looking for an audience that may or may not care.

By Eoin O'Carroll

If you’ve ever been on the internet, you may have noticed that it seems to be made out of cats. Some are famous for their exceptional abilities, like Tara the Hero Cat, who fought off a dog that was attacking a six-year old boy, and The OMG Cat, who is exceptionally good at looking surprised. Others owe their fame to their genes, like Grumpy Cat and Colonel Meow, who held the Guinness record for the longest fur. The “I’m not a cat” lawyer, whose Zoom filter forced him to appear as a kitten at an online court hearing, represented all of us for whom the events of 2020 triggered an identity crisis.

Cats drive web traffic. It’s hard to say exactly how much, but when I scrolled through 400 videos on a site called youtuberandom.com, I found that about 2 percent were cat-related, and one can only extrapolate. Two percent of YouTube may not sound like much, but given that the platform drew nearly $20 billion in ad revenue last year, it would place the economic impact of cat videos roughly on par with the value of Maine’s annual lobster catch.

In short, cats have been good for the internet. It’s fair to say the internet owes something back.

But the internet was designed for hairless apes, not their furry companions. More importantly, natural selection acted on Felis catus and Homo sapiens along vastly different criteria. One lineage became optimized as a solitary ambush predator that sleeps up to 16 hours per day, the other as a cooperative generalist that tends to stay up late bingeing on cat videos.

Even as the internet has been built on the furry backs of cats, it has alienated its users from them. The more time we spend consuming online content, the less time we spend noticing what cats notice — the piece of fluff dancing near the heating vent, the whiff of a new houseplant’s aroma, the robin perched on a branch outside the bedroom window.

“People forget that their cat is an animal,” says Terri Bright, who directs behavior services at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and teaches behavioral psychology at Northeastern University. “They think of them as their little furry buddy.”

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If you and your cat find yourselves without a catnip toy, a laser pointer, a length of string, a cardboard box, a paper bag, or anything that can be flicked or rolled across the floor, the internet is here to do what it does best: briefly stave off ennui. I tested a variety of tablet apps, YouTube videos, and sound recordings, created specifically for cats, on my household’s two resident felines.

Sinéad and Pádraig were adopted in 2016 at the age of six months. Like most shelter cats, their breed is indeterminate. As there is no feline equivalent of the word “mutt,” Not in U.S. English, at least. The British term for this is, adorably, a moggy—Ed. I decided to label them Irish Biting Cats: “Irish,” for their preoccupation with the weather, their refusal to accept compliments, and their tendency to linger in doorways for up to an hour while saying goodbye, and “biting,” for their oral communication styles.

But aside from the Irishness and the (gentle) biting, the two cats’ personalities couldn’t be more different. Sinéad is an adventurer. She enjoys spending time in the most inaccessible spots, exploring the space behind the kitchen cabinets, traipsing across a 14-foot-high windowsill, or hanging in my closet on what was once my good suit jacket. When she’s not spelunking, parkouring, or bouldering, Sinéad can usually be found on a kitchen shelf, curled up asleep in a salad bowl.

Pádraig, by contrast, is a Velcro cat. He prefers to be at my side, pressed against me. All the time. If I try to walk, he’ll lean against my legs, so the only way I can move around my home is with a faltering stagger. When Pádraig sees me preparing to leave the house, he’ll wrap his paws around my leg. When I return, he’ll run to the door to greet me with a welcoming bite.

Pádraig, who had been diligently biting my elbow, paused. His whiskers relaxed and his ears swiveled to take in the layers of sound.

Cats’ divergent personalities, it turns out, extend to their gaming styles. “Each cat has different kinds of games they like to play. It’s not something you can predict by age or size,” says Bright. That makes creating a one-size-fits-all app a challenge.

But there is one common thread to successful cat activity, Bright says: It needs to help them channel their pre-domesticated ancestors. “For any enrichment, you want to see them doing the same things they’d be doing in the wild,” she says. “Just give them a good, wild experience, if they desire it.” That means appealing to their hunting instinct.

I downloaded seven iPad apps for Sinéad and Pádraig to review. Their names were confusingly similar, like an action-film franchise that avoids numbering its sequels: “Game for Cats,” “Games for Cats,” “Best Game for Cats,” “Cat Games 3D,” and so on. The gameplay was basically the same. Virtual prey — usually mice but sometimes fish — move across the screen, waiting to be swatted at. Paid in-app upgrades unlock new varieties of prey, ranging from the whimsical (“Game for Cats” offers a bonus cartoon butterfly) to the sadistic (“Cat Games 3D” features a turtle dangling helplessly from a rope).

In truth, unlocking new prey probably doesn’t make much of a difference for the games’ feline users. Cats have poor short-range vision. In the real world, to compensate, they use their whiskers. Their sense of smell is also far more acute than ours, and they can hear much higher frequency sounds.

Indeed, there’s a lot about cat anatomy that make these apps a less-than-ideal experience. Mikel Delgado, a California-based cat behavior consultant, notes that cats literally see the world differently. “They see colors less vibrantly than we do,” she says. That’s because their retinas have a far greater proportion of the photoreceptor cells known as rods. Unlike cones, the cells that primarily sense color, rods can pick up very low levels of light. Rods also refresh at a faster rate — that’s why some fluorescent lights flicker in your peripheral vision, but not when you look directly at them. So cats are far more sensitive to movement than humans — an adaptation designed, Delgado says, to help them hunt between dusk and dawn.

That makes Delgado skeptical of online cat entertainment. “They’re not getting any tactile experience; they’re not getting any smell; they’re not getting any movement sense with their whiskers,” she says. And she worries that these apps could throw cats into an even deeper sense of confusion: “It might be violating some sort of property of physics or nature that the cat might expect.”

In any case, Sinéad and Pádraig completely ignored all the tablet apps except for one, called “Mouse for Cats.” Like many other games, it displays toy catnip mice, rendered in satisfying 3D, scurrying across the screen. Tapping on a mouse makes it stop and squeak. The squeaks grabbed Pádraig’s attention, and after watching me demonstrate, he enthusiastically joined in. As he pinned the mice under his paw and started furiously trying to bite their tails, I found myself questioning the wisdom of doing this exercise without a screen protector.

“With a cat and a touch screen, you can wreck your device pretty quick,” says Bright.

Then something interesting happened. After a couple of minutes, Pádraig shifted his strategy. After a mouse ran off the screen, he would try to catch it by sliding his paw under the iPad. Even though he couldn’t see the mouse anymore, he could still imagine it.

It makes perfect sense that such a specialized hunter would be able to track prey as it slips out of view. Only primates, dogs, and a few species of birds have been shown to consistently display the cognitive ability known as object permanence — the understanding that, even if you can’t see it, an object still exists. Most humans don’t grasp this concept until they’re at least 8 months old.

“Cats are naturally attracted to things like crevices,” says Delgado. “They like that transaction from visual to obscured.”

Pádraig continued playing for about five minutes before biting me to signal that he was done. I tracked down Sinéad, who was grooming herself in the dishwasher, to see if she was interested in playing. She was not.

Why did “Mouse for Cats” succeed where the others failed? I contacted Petr Vanek, the Czech developer who created the app, and asked what he thought made his app stand out.

He said it came down to researching his audience. “We have tested all colors, sounds, moves,” he wrote back in an email. “We tuned everything to attract most cats around the world.”

“An emerging audience”

After your cat breaks your tablet, you’ve got plenty of other cat-entertainment options via a PC or smart TV.  YouTube hosts millions of hours of videos aimed specifically at stimulating cats.

“We now have this world where cats are an emerging audience,” Earnest Pettie, the Trends and Insights lead at YouTube, told Wired in 2019.

YouTube’s top creator for cats, Paul Dinning, has about a half-million subscribers, placing his YouTube presence roughly on par with that of the Los Angeles Times.

His eight-hour “Bird Bonanza,” which shows a variety of common British wildlife as they nibble on snacks left in front of a high-definition camera, has amassed more than 20 million views so far. Another video, a 14-minute compilation of mice stopping to eat, is close behind, with more than 17 million. Dinning has also branched out to create similar, albeit less successful, videos aimed at dogs.

Delgado worries the surge in these videos’ popularity may have been driven by humans who lack time to play with their cats, an approach that could trigger cats’ separation anxiety. ​​“If you flip on the cat video every time you leave for work, they might associate it with you leaving,” she says.

Helpfully, the internet has a fix for feline anxiety, too. The nearly three-hour YouTube video “ASMR For Cats: Instant Feline Relaxation Music (TESTED),” claims to use “binaural technology designed to relax and calm your cat.” Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine how this could work in practice, given that binaural audio requires headphones.

Other recording artists have taken a more empirical approach. David Teie, a music professor at the University of Maryland, released two albums for cats in 2016 and 2018, both informed by animal psychology. Teie, a cellist and composer, aimed to reproduce some of the qualities of sounds that are important to cats. To do so, he collaborated with behavioral scientists at the University of Wisconsin. His music relies heavily on sliding notes, which are common in meows but rare in orchestras. In one song, he set the tempo to match the pace of a suckling kitten.

Research by scientists at the University of Louisiana suggests that Teie is onto something. Cats that listened to his music after their veterinary examinations were observed to be more relaxed than those that had listened to nothing or to classical music.

I treated Sinéad and Pádraig to a Teie track titled “Cozmos Air,” which sounds like a whale song produced by Brian Eno. Pádraig, who had been diligently biting my elbow, paused. His whiskers relaxed and his ears swiveled to take in the layers of sound. Sinéad wandered into the room, saluted me with her tail, and sat on the floor, her ears also chasing the sound in fitful twitches. Their fascination lasted about 15 seconds, which I estimate is at least a minute in cat time — or, to humans, the length of a typical Dead Kennedys song.

Next, I gave “Bird Bonanza” a try. I recognized many of the birds: finches, robins, pigeons, and jays. Perhaps because of all the tablet apps I had been playing, I felt a strong urge to swat at them.

I was so enthralled that I didn’t notice that Pádraig had left my side. Sinéad was in none of her usual spots: neither the silverware drawer nor the medicine cabinet. Were they fed up with all the forced screen time?

Thankfully, I soon found them. They were sitting side by side, tails twitching, looking at out the window at real birds.

I decided to join them. We watched for a good long time.

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Eoin O’Carroll is a writer and podcaster based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

 

Photo by Urmas Haljaste / Alamy Stock Photo

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