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The Science Behind Why Cat Videos Make Us Happy

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By Laura Drucker

It’s hard to imagine life before cat videos. What did we do all day? How did we know what cats look like playing keyboards or sitting pretty on turtles? How could we have imagined the brave kitties who have walked across the courts at international sports matches or ridden off to battle on toy horses?

Cat videos are a staple of the Internet as we know it. In May 2005, YouTube co-founder Steve Chen posted a video on the site of his cat, Pajamas, playing with a rope that Chen dangled from above. Eleven years later it’s acquired just shy of 47,000 hits—hardly enough to be considered groundbreaking. But Chen’s video was just that. “Pajamas and Nick Drake” was the very first cat video posted to YouTube.

In 2014, more than two million cat videos were posted on YouTube, according to video marketing group ReelSEO. Combined, those videos boast more than 25 billion views—more views per video than any other category on the site.

“Cat videos can make us happy,” says Mikel Delgado, cat behavior expert, co-founder of cat behavior consulting firm Feline Minds, and Ph.D. candidate in psychology at UC Berkeley. She cites a recent study in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, led by Jessica Gall Myrick at Indiana University, which found that participants had less anxiety, sadness, and frustration after watching cat videos, even if they were doing something that had been causing negative emotions, such as working or studying. Watching the videos also increased positive emotions, including hope and happiness.

There's truly no shortage of cat videos on the Internet

YouTube: An emporium of cat content

Cat videos have a unique ability to regulate our emotions and bring us into the moment. We’re hardwired to have a positive response to traits we find cute and appealing—big eyes, fluffiness, roundness— Delgado says. This elicits a caring, protective response, a phenomenon called kindenschema. We especially love when cute, fluffy creatures do things that remind us of humans. “Any time we can anthropomorphize—project human qualities onto a non- human—we have a similar response,” Delgado says.

Videos of pandas going down slides or a puppy and a tiger cub curling up to nap together draw similar reactions, but cat videos are especially endearing. They’re opportunities to watch cats, typically so stoic and reserved, do things you don’t usually see, like running to greet their human with a hug when they walk in the front door. (Hard to imagine? Google it.)

Cats have fewer facial expressions than dogs, Delgado says. As such, people tend to find them more mysterious and elusive, so it’s extra enticing to project human emotions and intentions onto them.

However, our obsession with this viral craze can sometimes hurt our feline friends. “There are many videos of cats that to me show a lack of understanding of cat behavior and health, or a lack of sensitivity to their needs,” Delgado says. For example, late last year, a rash of people filmed their cats jumping at the sight of a cucumber. Cats aren’t inherently afraid of cucumbers, she says, but they have a startle reflex, and scaring them, especially during mealtime as many of the videos showed, conditions fearful responses.

So enjoy the adorable kitty content out there, but no pressure to participate. Your cat might not wear pajamas or hula hoop or bop your dog on the nose, but cats just being cats is equally as awesome.

Do, however, take advantage of the feel-good effects of cat videos the next time you need a pick-me-up. It’s a quick, easy, and scientifically-proven way to better your mood and your day.

Hannah SimoneTalking Cat Videos with New Girl’s Hannah Simone, Host of the 2016 Catdance Film Festival

First cats took over the Internet, and now film festivals? The Catdance Film Festival is the cutest part of Sundance, recognizing the independent kitty-inspired shorts that have moved us, delighted us, and caused milk to spurt out of our noses. We talked to Hannah Simone, one of the stars of Fox’s megahit New Girl and host of this year’s film festival, about kitty appeal.

How did you get involved with the festival?

I have known about Catdance for a few years now, and when they asked if I would host I couldn’t say yes fast enough! For a cat lover, it was a dream come true.

What part of Catdance were you most looking forward to?

[We debuted] the first virtual reality experience through the eyes of a cat. It’s part of Fresh Step’s Million Meow Mission to help more shelter cats find forever homes. Think about it: If the world could see how much adoption means from a cat’s point of view, shelters would be empty.

What do you think it is about cat videos that makes people love them so much?

They make you smile instantly.

What makes a perfect cat video?

Just cats being cats. They are so silly and adorable.

Which do you watch more of, cat videos or dog videos?

If it’s cute, I’m watching! I don’t discriminate.

Want to experience the cat virtual reality experience yourself? Check out the video.

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