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Is your cat demanding too much screen time?

Moderate screen time of your pet as it cannot be a substitute for the real experience of spending time together

The internet has many games for cats and dogs.
The internet has many games for cats and dogs. (Unsplash/ Catherine Heath)

Recently, a worried cat owner asked me how much screen time was appropriate for her cat. Her cat was watching videos for a few hours daily on the iPad. It got me thinking about what screen-time may mean for our pets.

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We know that excessive screen time can affect our productivity and lead to developmental issues among children. Now our changing lifestyle practices appear to be slowly making their way into the lives of our pets too.

What do pets see when they watch TV or any smaller device? More than the image, what grabs their attention is the activity, colour and movement, though not all animals will enjoy watching a screen. Images must be displayed at a frame rate of roughly 15-20 frames per second (fps) for humans to perceive fluid motion. For dogs, it is around 70 fps; for a cat, 100 fps. If not, it just looks like a strobe light to them. For birds, it must be greater than 100 fps. So your pet bird may not be interested in a screen.

While both dogs and cats lack our vibrant colour vision, a cat’s colour vision is greater than a dog’s, which may explain why they tend to become more engrossed in the screen. In addition, modern TVs and iPads provide pets with a more delightful experience than earlier screens. So your dog or cat may not be able to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.

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The internet has many games for cats and dogs. These games and films replicate what our pets used to do, which was to sit on trees and chase insects and other small mammals and birds. With the help of the app Pocket Pond, your cat can chase Koi fish on the screen. Videos made to entertain cats appear to receive more views, with as many as 55 million views in a year as opposed to six million for dog-based videos. Videos with chirping birds, scurrying mice, or other objects they can chase off the screen are more appealing.

I attempted to get Catbury, my cat, to watch a film that featured moving insects. Fascinated, she swiped at the screen for about 20 minutes, until I pulled it away from her. It proves that cats like interacting with objects that trigger their innate desire to hunt. Cats with a greater instinct to hunt will be more likely to spend time on such games and videos.

According to research, cats kept indoors may benefit from this type of amusement, which satiates their need for mental stimulation. Since it is a supervised exercise, and much safer, it may also assist senior cats, cats with disabilities and those recovering from an illness. When you aren’t home, you can use screen time to keep your cat or dog occupied and ease their separation anxiety.

There is currently no evidence that watching television or using a tablet will harm your pet’s vision. They need to be closer to a screen to perceive movement because they can’t see as well as humans can. Keep brightness levels lower to prevent retinal injury. Always check equipment security. Remember, screen time in pets can involve a lot of swiping at the device; ensure both your pet and device stay safe.

But screen games only permit a visual experience, not a tactile one. The hunt’s scent, sensation and excitement are different, and failing to successfully catch a real target could be frustrating. Give your cat a break if you notice that it is becoming agitated. Additionally, watching too much television might result in a lack of activity and lead to obesity.  

So while screen time in itself is not detrimental, it could lead to other issues if it develops into a habit. There is no substitute for real physical activity and interactive playtime.

Your relationship with your pets may also suffer if you spend too much time in front of the screen yourself. According to a UK study, pets whose owners spend a lot of time staring at their devices are more likely to experience depression. Additionally, they are more prone to misbehaving to attract your attention.

So limit screen time—for your animals and yourself. It can be a great tool for enjoyment when used moderately but it will never be able to match the authentic experience of spending time with a pet engaged in proper physical activity.

Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.

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