It’s 10 p.m. in Flemington, N.J., and like clockwork, tabby cats Ralph and Riley climb onto their favorite chair in front of the television and settle down to watch "Animal Cops" on the cable channel Animal Planet. In Denver, Colo., a Welsh corgi named Ruby is watching the same show.
Meanwhile, in Long Beach, Calif., Frankie, a large Maine coon cat, is concentrating on a wildlife program about porcupines. In Issaquah, Wash., a black feline named Fritz is getting ready to defend his house from what he perceives to be an invasion by canine contestants on a TV dog show. And halfway around the world in Cape Town, South Africa, a Jack Russell terrier named Anja won’t settle down and eat her chicken dinner until Judge Judy takes to her courtroom bench.
These pets are a random sample of TV's newest and growing captive audience. And it seems the tongue-in-cheek prediction made by a TV network executive in the 1988 movie "Scrooged" may be coming true after all:
“There is increasing evidence that dogs and cats watch television,” claimed Preston Rhinelander, played by the late Robert Mitchum. “We should start programming right now so that in 20 years they could become regular viewers.”
'An ever-increasing animal audience'
It appears many pets already have their favorite shows and are regularly joining their owners on the couch for an evening in front of the tube.
“I get letters from viewers at least twice a month with photos of dogs and cats (and even one parrot) watching Animal Planet,” says Maureen Smith, the channel’s executive vice president and general manager. "In fact, in the next month, Animal Planet will be announcing a concept specifically created to be entertainment that animals will enjoy and humans will get a kick out of, too.”
A survey conducted by the American Kennel Club and Iams Co. found that almost 50 percent of all dogs surveyed showed some interest in the small screen.
“There’s no doubt that television has an ever-increasing animal audience even if their attention span varies from a few minutes to several hours,” says animal behaviorist Dr. Nicholas Dodman of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and author of "If Only They Could Speak."
“The fact they watch proves how visual and thinking animals really are," says Dodman. "Their interest in the small screen has nothing to do with their olfactory senses.”
Which way did they go?
Pets that show a keen interest in particular programs often watch the on-screen picture and then run around to the back of the TV set to see if the animals and people they are seeing are actually inside. According to Dodman, they appear to be trying to reason through the situation.
“A dog will look at the on-screen picture and you can see it thinking 'I wonder if …' as it runs around to the back. 'That’s funny, they’re not here.' Back the front of the screen. 'Ah, yes, they are still here.' Then around to the back again …"
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Dodman says he once treated a Beagle that routinely went berserk when the television was on. His family brought him in for a consultation because he would bark and become very agitated, once even knocking the TV set over. Watching TV became increasingly difficult for anyone in the household and even if the dog was put in another room, he kept barking. Once when the family played a DVD of the movie "Babe," with its cast of pigs, dogs, cats and other farm animals, he became completely uncontrollable.
“You could argue that there were some predatory aspects to his behavior," says Dodman. "Either way, he wanted them out of his home and was just about ready to kill the TV set."
From NASCAR to QVC
Dodman says that, in general, dogs will sit and watch things that canines are interested in, like other dogs, and cats will be drawn to things that move quickly across the screen — anything from butterflies to tennis balls.
Dogs also seem to enjoy programs about horses and Jack Russell Anja is no exception. She is also an avid NASCAR racing fan, and double checks her own front door every time someone knocks or rings the doorbell on a TV program.
Back in Flemington, N.J., Sandra Campbell, pet parent to tabbies Ralph and Riley, says that she knows exactly when they are really interested in a particular program. Campbell watches the pope’s weekly audience on her computer and Ralph will immediately materialize to join her.
"I’ve noticed that when the pope speaks in Italian, French or English, Ralph will lie and nap but the moment he switches to German he sits up and concentrates on the screen. He does this every week without fail.”
Another cat in the Campbell household, named Molly Meu, watches the shopping channel QVC. “She sits on the arm of the chair facing the screen and is fascinated when close-ups of jewelry are shown. I think she likes the sparkle.”
Campbell’s felines also have a growing collection of their own DVDs and software that she puts on to amuse them while she is out. There’s no question that this is a growing market spawned to help pets wile away lonely hours and combat separation anxiety.
“When it comes to cats, there are different kinds of play and play motivation,” says Dr. John Wright, an animal behaviorist and professor of psychology at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. Wright, together with software engineer Matt Wolf, created the popular Cyberpounce CD.
“The amount of time a cat will play per day is a good indicator of whether it’s likely to enjoy interactive software,” explains Wright.
Couch potato pets
The latest in feline entertainment, the Couch Potato Kitty DVD, caters to feline predatory instincts with butterflies and hamsters in wheels, while canine entertainment, like the Pooch TV DVD, is filled with dogs playing and exploring. It also features the odd turkey for amusement.
As a rule, most cats and dogs like to be in the company of their owners. So for an increasing number of pets, it’s the people on the couch that is the main attraction. In fact 87 percent of people surveyed in the AKC-Iams study said their pets curl up with them or at their feet when they watch TV.
Not to be left behind, savvy marketing executives are now selling TV snacks for pets. There’s everything from Woofy Pop popcorn, nachews (doggy tortilla chips), bacon-, peanut butter- or cheese-flavored rawhide chips, ice cream, canine yogurt cups (strawberry flavored), and old-fashioned feline and canine treat packs.
Whether you decide to invest in these kinds of products or not, watching TV is an excellent excuse for spending quality time with your favorite pet. So break out the goodies, possibly even a grooming brush, get comfortable on the couch and get ready to channel surf together.
Sandy Robins is a freelance writer and columnist based in Irvine Calif. Her work has appeared in numerous publications in the United States and internationally.
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