Copyright 1994, 1999, 2002 Sarah Hartwell

Many cat owners report that their cats sometimes watch TV. There has been much debate over whether cats make any sense of what they are seeing or whether they just react to the shifting patterns on the screen. Most researchers now agree that while cats might not make much sense of an episode of Neighbours or a Manchester United away game, they do recognise TV images of familiar objects and are also attracted to unfamiliar images which resemble something they do know e.g. a TV-sized image of a moving horse isn't too different from a life-size moving gerbil, at least not where some of my cats are concerned.

This information comes as no surprise to anyone who has watched their cat 'hunt' TV images during nature programs. Scrapper had a distinct preference for rainforest butterflies; Motley quite liked Channel 4 racing though I could never persuade her to pick the winner for me.

 Do cats bat at the pictures because they are too thick to work out that there isn't really anything there or do they simply enjoy playing with what they know isn't real? Some cats certainly are daft enough to have trouble working out the distinction between real life and TV - but then some people have the same difficulty. However, most cats soon work out that the TV picture is just like that annoying cat in the mirror - it isn't really there, but it's still fun pretending it is!

American vet Dr Michael Fox suggests that cats have a degree of self-awareness and can recognise their own reflection (after a quick check to make sure there really isn't another cat behind the mirror after all). They can also recognise still or moving images of other cats, but most don't waste their energy attacking pictures - leading us to believe that they don't recognise pictures. However, some owners have found their cat attacking the life-sized centre-spread poster in a cat magazine.

If cats can recognise pictures of other cats then they can probably recognise other pictures too. TV combines a recognisable image with movement and sound. After an initial check to see if any mice have come out of the back of the TV set, most cats place TV in the same mental category as 'reflection' though they may occasionally double-check for escaping mice since the TV is, in cat terms, a box with animals inside it and it's quite reasonable to assume that the animals might sometimes escape (and it's the cat's duty to protect you from escaping miniaturised polar bears or Derby winners).

Dr Fox also suggests that cats have a sense of fun and may make inappropriate responses for enjoyment's sake e.g they may 'dance' with their reflected image even though they know it is just a reflection. After spending hours watching my own cats, it seems that they have a sense of humour, though nowhere near as sophisticated as a human sense of humour. On second thoughts, having witnessed my cats "laughing" at me, their sense of humour is probably so sophisticated that us humans can't understand the jokes.

The fact that cats can recognise TV images is exploited by companies producing videos aimed specifically at a feline audience. Once dismissed as a cranky idea, many of us now own a cat video. These videos can be played to stimulate the mind of an otherwise bored cat or to keep a lonely cat company. Unlike a cushion by the window, the action is reliable and repeatable and can't be scared away if Puss dabs at the glass (this might take away just a little of the fun though!).

Some cats take to video right away. When fostering a kitten I used to play a video to keep her quiet. She was so fascinated by the images of birds at a bird feeder that she would even stop wrecking the front room to watch it. Other cats need several exposures to the videos before they show any interest. The irritating thing about trying to interest a cat in TV is that you can't just point to the screen and say "look at the birdies". The cat tends to look at your pointing finger instead of the screen. Others, like my dedicated couch potato Sappho, show no interest at all and just roll over and go to sleep instead - and can you keep the volume down please, some of us are trying to sleep!

But then Sappho isn't interested in real birds and has no hunting urges to indulge. The same can't be said of 19 year old Queenie which means I sometimes have to pick up a semi-rigid cat whose rickety joints locked up which she was in crouch mode, but being partially sighted she has to smell her prey and TV technology hasn't gotten that far yet. However Fleur (the Chelmsford Greenfinch Slaughterer) is fascinated by TV and especially loves scenes where a toys are dragged across the screen. Motley preferred bird scenes. Scrapper had a thing about butterfly programs. Kitty II liked Italian football. Some cats have very distinct preferences and might watch chipmunks, but be left unmoved by scenes of aquarium fish.

Motley II (all our brindled torties get called Motley; when you have a constant throughput of old cats and nameless strays it makes it easier on the memory) likes footage of African animals hunting - it's a sort of snuff movie for cats and she tries to join in when the lionesses have brought a wildebeest to its knees. We're trying to wean her off of sex and violence and on to more wholesome fare before she ends up on some talk show explaining how TV turned her into a violent teenager.

In fact Motley II is peculiar in that she'll watch entire TV wildlife shows, lose interest during the commercials, and start watching again when the commercials are over. She has a special TV viewing seat and woe betide anyone who switches channels while she's following the plot - and she certainly seems to follow what's going on. Programs about dogs also fascinate her (comedy for cats I guess) and a documentary on Oetzi, the ancient hunter found frozen in a glacier, kept her enthralled right to the end. She chattered encouragement during the bear-hunting scene and her eyes followed the on-screen action. I'm not sure what to make of it except that maybe she watched a lot of TV in a previous incarnation as a human and hasn't quite lost the habit. It would certainly make an interesting talk show topic: "I was a TV addict in my previous life and I'm a TV addict in this one too ... and I'm a cat!"

So, if you feel that your cat doesn't get enough stimulation and you want to encourage it to watch a cat-oriented video and wildlife program, place a comfortable stool in front of the TV. Switch on the TV and/or video. When it reaches an action scene, place Puss on the stool and tap the TV screen with your finger. Either Puss will get the idea and start watching the action or Puss will play with your finger instead. Either way it's stimulation and you might as well pander to Puss's whims as long as your finger remains intact. Play the video a couple of times a day, making sure that Puss has a front row seat. Puss may eventually get the idea or you may end up having your finger surgically reattached.

What happens if Puss still doesn't want to watch a cat video? Maybe instead of getting square eyes Puss prefers other traditional activities such as hunting, exploring or, like my Sappho, sleeping. Perhaps its no bad thing that not all cats are TV addicts. There are enough household debates over which people-video to watch without the cats demanding regular showings of their favourite tapes when I want to watch Star Trek.

It's even worse now that I've got cable TV. With over 100 channels available, am I morally obliged to take the cats into consideration when channel surfing? Should I avoid veterinary programs which show distressing footage of injured cats? If Puss shows an interest in some documentary about the history of iron smelting in Russia or a re-run of some dreadful 60s sitcom, am I obliged to stick to that channel or can I record the program and let her watch it later on?

There are cat-oriented videos of course and these are apparently essential viewing for indoor cats. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, cat videos aren't stocked by Blockbuster video rental shops. Can you imagine driving to the video store with a cat on your shoulder and letting it choose the evening's viewing? Before you know it, you'll be watching 'Terminator F - A Tabby Cat's Quest for Revenge on Mice" or "Hitchcock's The Birds - A Cat's Eye View". Like martial arts movies, they'll be long on action and short on plot and there'll be more corpses in 90 minutes than most funeral parlours see in a year. And don't ever try to rent "Stuart Little" or "Mouse Hunt" as your cat will immediately start writing a letter to the local SPCA about the unfair representation of cats in films. And as for the anti-cat sentiment in "Cats and Dogs" - they'll be demanding an alternative version for the feline market!

Most appear in advertising pages of glossy cat magazines which always brings to mind those discreet advertisements for 'adult movies' in mainstream magazines. If you are a camcorder enthusiast you can record your own video catnip geared to your own cats' preferences; though personally I am not willing to buy me cat a chair labelled 'director'; how many times can you re-shoot a scene of sparrows hopping about before the birds find alternative employment and a better class of breadcrumb on someone else's lawn?

And if anyone ever invents a TV remote control which cats can use, I am definitely hiding it! We've had African lionesses three times already this week and Motley II is looking forward to a repeat showing tomorrow morning.

Photos: Scrapper and his butterfly program; Motley II watching the end credits of a Discovery Channel documentary.