This is a story about Opie and Karma.
Most days the two cats cuddle on a bed upstairs in the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home of Aray Till, a freelance creative director. One recent afternoon, though, they were startled by the sound of chirping birds in the living room downstairs.
They bounded down the staircase and were transfixed by two blue jays they saw sparring over seeds on the television screen. Opie swatted at the glass, while Karma sat upright, a vigilant sentry.
Till had recently discovered “cat TV” on Amazon Prime, a library of streaming videos and movies that feature birds, squirrels and other creatures, and were made to entertain felines.
Opie and Karma aren’t the only ones amused. “My in-laws were here recently and we put on cat TV,” Till recalled in an interview. “There were five adults, one child and two cats watching. It was a nice meditative break from the daily news.”
Pet owners have long turned to classical music and cable’s Animal Planet to distract overactive canines and bored kittens. But with the proliferation of streaming services, entertaining furry companions has gone high tech.
Last month, Spotify announced new playlists for cats, dogs and their musically inclined owners. Audible, the streaming book service, has collaborated with Cesar Millan, the television personality better known as the “dog whisperer,” to recommend books for pups.
And Amazon Prime’s offerings, with their squabbling squirrels and chattering raccoons, have found prominence on social media, where owners post videos of their cats riveted by the onscreen action.
“I’ve never seen her much interested in a bird,” Sam Jacobs said of her 10-year-old cat, Billie. But after Jacobs heard about cat TV on Instagram, she turned it on and Billie “sat perfectly still, watching, which she never does.”
If cats are finally catching on, hounds were ahead of the pack. In 2012, the first television channel for dogs debuted. DogTV, which also offers a streaming service, was devised to soothe separation anxiety and stimulate canines who were left alone. A year later, a study in the journal Animal Cognition showed that dogs could pick out the faces of other dogs on a computer screen.
Around the same time, the industry for pet products was exploding. Last year, for example, Americans bought $72 billion in food, supplies and toys for their pets. It’s no surprise that streaming services also want to cater to this lucrative market.
Spotify surveyed 5,000 pet owners from Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy and the United States before releasing its pet-centric playlists. More than seven in 10 pet owners surveyed said they had played music for their furry friends. Almost half of the owners believed that music helps relieve their animal’s stress.
Audible’s recommendations for dogs debuted in 2017 and feature Millan. The recommendations, though, are hardly scientific. According to Audible’s website, they are based on an anecdotal study of 100 volunteers who were given Amazon Echo devices and asked to record their dogs’ responses to hearing books on the device. (Audible is owned by Amazon.)
Among Millan’s recommendations is Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” read by actress Sissy Spacek. He warned that dogs need to be in a post-exercise, relaxed state to respond to audiobooks, adding that voice and consistency are important, along with sounding like the pet’s owner.
“Audible is not going to get your dog tired,” Millan said. “They have to exercise. If you put on television when your dog is nervous, it is going to remain nervous.”
Indeed, watching birds or squirrels onscreen is no substitute for the outdoors. “At least if they are outside and see a squirrel, they can smell or dig,” Millan said. “And dogs want to be with their own kind. They would never go to Best Buy and get a television.”
Dr. Nolan Zeide, a veterinarian in Stamford, Conn., said that sound waves and frequencies do affect animals, but that being with their owners is what they want most.
“I know there are people who believe Animal Planet makes their cat or dog feel better,” Zeide said. “But the animal only wants one thing, the human. They are thinking, ‘Where is Bob?’”
Grace Bonney stumbled across cat TV on Amazon Prime a few weeks ago when she was looking for something to watch while her dog recuperated from knee surgery. To be clear, Bonney wanted a show for herself, not her dog. She is an author and bird watcher. And she was curious about what shows Amazon offered cats.
“They are hilarious because there is so much drama, like anything you’ve seen on Bravo,” she said. Birds squabble and slap each other with their wings. Raccoons wander under cover of night. In one show, a hawk terrorizes burrowing rodents.
Bonney, who is known as @designsponge on Instagram, decided to share her discovery with her followers. “I got 400 direct messages from people totally thrilled to find this out,” she said.
Friends complained to her because Amazon Prime did not offer certain videos in Canada. “Now, I’m versed in how to find bird videos on YouTube,” Bonney said. “One woman placed a chair in front of the TV to make her cat comfortable.”
Bonney’s cat, Turk, and dog, Winky, were unfazed by cat TV. “I was watching a movie about grizzly bears and they responded to that,” she said. “And foxes.”
Mostly, though, Bonney said the videos were a welcome distraction from, well, you know what. “When you are watching birds and chipmunks fight over a corncob, it makes you stop thinking about impeachment,” she said of the Senate trial of President Donald Trump. “It slows down whatever is happening. The footage is so relaxing, almost melodic.”
Jacobs, a seasonal candy buyer, said Billie, her black short-haired cat, mostly sleeps and ignores her family. “She just sticks to herself,” she said. Not anymore. Recently, Billie jumped on an ottoman and, for 10 minutes, stared down a bird on cat TV. “It was unusual,” Jacobs said.
Not to Zeide. “The cat is looking at the bird feeder and you know what it is thinking,” he said. “It wants to eat that bird. It’s not relaxing for them at all.”