Are ‘funny’ pet videos doing more harm than good? Here’s how to read your pet’s body language

Vets have issued a warning that the surge in online videos could actually be harming our pets.

Friday, 8th March 2019, 1:14 pm
Updated Friday, 8th March 2019, 1:35 pm

In recent years there has been a huge increase of funny pet videos appearing online, garnering millions of views and shares, but vets are warning they may not be as funny as they first look.

As part of the research for its 2019 Vet Report, Vets4Pets watched a sample of viral pet videos, and found that many included stressed pets.

Cats fared worst, as 34 per cent of videos watched by vets had cats that displayed signs of distress or anxiety.


To help combat this, vets are now raising awareness and offering advice to owners on what their pet’s behaviours really mean.

Dr Huw Stacey, vet and director of clinical services at Vets4Pets, said, “As vets we recognise that many of the popular videos online today actually involve pets displaying signs of distress or anxiety.

“This could add up to hundreds of thousands of pets being stressed unnecessarily.

“Most owners can spot when their pet is very angry or scared, whether it’s their dog growling or cat hiding away, but there are many other instances where a pet’s behaviours are more subtle and so can be easily misinterpreted.


“Cats especially are often misunderstood. We watched 100 random popular cat videos online, and aggression was seen in 15 per cent, whilst signs of distress such as flat ears and brushed tail were seen in around one in ten videos. Cats falling from a height were also seen in 15 per cent of the videos, five per cent of which were into water.

“Cats aren’t trained to do tricks and play the same way that dogs are, so many of the videos found online depict a cat’s over the top reaction to a situation that has scared them, as these reactions can often be seen as humorous.

“The 2019 Vet Report explores pet behaviours in more detail, but an example of stressed pets can be seen in videos with cats and drones. Some cats may like chasing them, but others get nervous and the rotating blade isn’t safe for pets.

“Another example is the past craze of owners surprising their cats with cucumbers whilst they are eating, which often leads to the cats leaping high into the air.


“Cucumbers, or any other object placed behind a cat, will trigger this natural startle reflex, and if it is put where the cat is eating this can be especially severe, as cats associate these areas with safety. It can be perceived by the cat as a threat, like a snake, so will inevitably scare them into reacting.”

The cats and cucumber video craze is incredibly popular across the internet and social media, with the top compilation on You Tube gaining 36 million views in one year.

“There are obviously many videos out there which just show pets having fun with their owners, but it’s key that owners are able to spot when their pet is actually stressed and not just being cute or humorous,” said Dr Stacey.

“Cats have very heightened senses, and as they are so attuned to their surroundings, their communication and behaviours are usually very subtle.


“This means that even the small changes in your cat’s ear positioning, eyes, whiskers and pupil size can all indicate a large change in their emotional state.

“Flattened ears indicate a defensive attitude, whilst swivelled ears mean a cat is readying for aggressive action.

“If a cat’s tail starts waving, lashing side to side or puffing up, then this is usually a sign the cat is upset or agitated, different to a dog where a waving tail often means they are very happy.”

Many owners probably know how to tell if their dog is content or stressed, and the majority of the popular videos of dogs on the internet do depict happy dogs; doing tricks, enjoying a walk or playing with their owner.

However, there are still many misconceptions of what behaviours dogs display and what they are actually trying to tell their owners.

“Two of the most commonly misinterpreted elements of a dog’s body language are a wagging tail and a grin or smile,” said Dr Stacey.

“Videos of grinning dogs have increased in popularity over recent years, and are easy to interpret as the dogs being happy, as we simply apply human meaning to their expression.

“But the dogs are actually displaying submissive behaviour, known as appeasement. Dogs exhibit appeasement behaviours to calm a situation down and make them appear non-threatening, and is usually in response to feeling uncomfortable or anxious, although this expression can also be a learned behaviour.

“And whilst many dogs wag their tail when they are happy, they can also do it when they are alert. Therefore we would recommend looking to see if the rest of their body is tense and checking the nearby surroundings to see what could be setting off this behaviour.”

This trend is the same with rabbits too. In the 50 videos of rabbits that the Vets4Pets team reviewed, six per cent showed a tranced rabbit playing dead, whilst one in ten indicated an angry or aggressive rabbit.

“Happy rabbits are seen online in videos performing binkies where they jump and twist their body in the air, which is their way of expressing joy, but rabbits are often very misunderstood creatures, so it’s important that owners understand their other behaviours,” added Dr Stacey.

“Rabbits lying still on their back may look relaxed, but they are actually exhibiting a fear response and are well aware of their surroundings. Trancing or tonic immobility should never be used at home with your rabbit.”

Vets4Pets are hoping to help educate owners on the true meanings behind the different pet’s behaviours and language through its 2019 Vet Report, so they can spot when their pet is in a negative emotional state.

“The vast majority of the videos of pets shared online do genuinely feature happy and content pets, and we love to see happy pet videos, but it’s important for owners to know when their pet is actually stressed or scared so they can help to rectify the situation,” said Dr Stacey.

“If owners are ever unsure on what their pet is trying to tell them through their body language, or they are displaying any unusual behaviours, then we would always recommend that they go and speak to the local vet and qualified pet behaviourists for advice.”

For further information on pet behaviours and language, visit the 2019 Vet Report at