Pets are natural entertainers. But when the joke is on the animal, it is not just the performance but the whole platform that comes into question.
Cats are the stars of the internet, initially as personal social media fodder and, more recently, as unlikely comedians. Among the many phenomena TikTok spawned, the “cat reaction video” is one of the most efficient. Cute cat + cheeky TikToker = instant reaction. This genre of social share packs it all in just a few seconds.
Popular cat provocations include dressing up a cat or surprising it with an unfamiliar object — as was the case with the cat + cucumber craze that hit the net a few years back. “Some people believe that cucumbers look like a snake, which is a predator that has been known to attack and even eat cats,” according to Claudine Sievert, DVM. “Cats see an elongated green object and think it’s a snake, so they run from it.”
In addition to direct physical harm, such incidents can cause emotional trauma to a pet, which in turn creates a heightened sense of anxiety that can affect its bladder and bowel control.
“Anxiety affects virtually every system in the body,” says vet and Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association rep Dr. Susan Krebsbach. “And, usually, a one-time incident probably wouldn’t cause major issues, but it’s possible. Sometimes it can be that an animal becomes so, so fearful of a particular object.”
But how prevalent is the issue? ProtectMyPaws analyzed hundreds of TikTok videos to find out how many show harmful interactions with cats, what kinds of interactions are most common and how viewers are responding.
ProtectMyPaws manually reviewed 650 cat-related videos on TikTok, checking for instances of 12 types of potentially harmful interactions involving a cat. These categories include inappropriate physical interactions, using inappropriate clothing to dress the cat or using inappropriate objects for them to interact with. Please see our full methodology at the foot of this report.
- 26% of all cat-related TikTok videos involve harmful interactions with cats.
- 5% of the cat videos analyzed involve cats in harmful accidents or being petted aggressively.
- 8% of cat videos involve covering up a cat’s key senses with clothing or other objects.
- The average number of likes for a harmful cat TikTok is 1,162,322.
One in Four Cat-Related TikToks is Cruel
Over a quarter (26%) of all cat-related TikToks involve harmful interactions, according to our research. Of these, the most common form of harm is inappropriate physical interaction, which occurs in 15% of videos analyzed. Next after that, with 13%, is the use of inappropriate clothing or objects.
Below is a breakdown of the harmful physical interactions that can take place. Aggressive petting is tied for first place with forced physical interaction. Grabbing it by the neck to force a kiss or smothering the cat’s head with a hand are common instances of aggressive petting. Cats do not like being kissed on the mouth (plus, you can get bacteria or parasites from them that way), and many cats will also feel uncomfortable if kissed on the head. In addition, lifting a cat by the scruff of its neck — biting aside — causes fear and distress. Even the cat’s mother would only do so in early kittenhood since the reflex to ‘go limp’ when lifted this way fades after a few weeks.
ProtectMyPaws also compared the use of inappropriate clothing and objects in comedy cat videos. Perhaps surprisingly, the cat + cucumber-style video is one of the least common on cat TikTok. Videos featuring “unsafe toys or objects that startle the cat” account for just 1% of cat videos analyzed. In addition to the ‘cat hack’ of using cucumbers or other snake-like objects, pretending to attack a cat with a cuddly toy also causes distress on an emotional and physiological level.
‘Cats in human clothing’ is a very particular brand of weird. While dressing up a dog involves a cute factor — and is less likely to cause stress, depending on the dog — cats in clothes have always looked creepy. Perhaps because we know we’d be in a lot of trouble if cats walked among us as equals. Unfortunately, this creepy effect is well-tuned for prompting audience reactions on TikTok. Sunglasses, hats and Halloween costumes are popular choices among TikTokers who put lolz ahead of their cat’s feelings.
Let’s not put this all on the TikTokers: to quote every grade school teacher ever, they wouldn’t do it if they didn’t get a reaction. Unfortunately, we found that the average number of likes on a harmful cat video is 1,162,322 — from an average viewership of 9,427,314. A better response to “liking” the video is to report it: TikTok guidelines claim that the company wants to “be a place that respects animals and celebrates the ways that they enrich our lives across different cultures and regions,” stating that they “do not allow animal abuse, cruelty, neglect, trade, or other forms of animal exploitation.”
The most-watched type of cat cruelty on TikTok is the “Inappropriate Physical Interaction,” such as holding a cat up on its back legs to dance with it or forcing its mouth open and closed. This type of video gets an average of 13,157,968 views among our sample. Rather than view such a video to the end, scrolling straight on may help to make it look less juicy to the algorithm that decides which posts get promoted on other users’ feeds.
“Inappropriate Physical Interactions” are also the most popular cat cruelty videos, attracting an average of 1,538,638 Likes per TikTok. These videos tend to emerge in waves or trends, with one such trend involving picking up the cat like a phone in the manner of a scene from The Princess Diaries (2001). “Many are handled roughly, and their body language shows a negative response to having been picked up,” said vet Dr. Jessica May at the time. “It is especially concerning to see some cats being held upside down — something that is not only very frightening for the animal but that also puts the pet at risk of head injury if dropped.”
10 Ways NOT to Handle a Cat
“Try not to put them in any scary or uncomfortable situations,” suggests vet Sam Webster, adding a guiding principle for working with cats on TikTok videos: “At the end of the day, you should both be having fun.”
TikTok cat videos tend to work on the premise that it’s amusing to see a cat’s rather deadpan face combined with a reaction of annoyance or surprise. In the cold light of day, it’s hard to imagine how so many people could be laughing at the discomfort of another creature. But there’s plenty of stuff people do off-camera that irks their cats, too. And because some of these sticking points aren’t obvious, we’ve summarized them in the infographic below.
It’s the “Treat Your Cat With Empathy” Challenge
In the wake of the “put an ice cube on your cat” challenge, the Blue Cross’s animal behaviorist Claire Haynes told Newsweek that “pet owners should create a safe and loving environment for our animals, and consider the impact our actions have on our pet’s welfare and emotional state.”
Consideration is the keyword: in search of laughs or Likes, it’s easy for the TikTok user or creator to succumb to a moment of instinctive amusement. But keep the feelings and welfare of pets at the forefront of your mind, and you might find yourself instinctively reaching for the “report” button rather than that little white heart.
Methodology & Sources
To find out how often TikTok videos show harmful interactions with cats, we manually reviewed 650 cat-related videos on TikTok under the hashtags: #cattok, #catsoftiktok, #catfails, #catfail, #catdressup and #funnycat. Examples include cat compilation videos and original uploads from TikTok users.
Within each video, we checked for instances of interactions either between a human and a cat or from a human filming a cat where the cat is distressed, uncomfortable or harmed by the interaction or at risk of being so from the events that occur with them in the video. We considered up to 12 types of interaction as potentially harmful, which have been identified by experts at the RSPCA, PetMD, Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital, The Pet Health Network and the Safe Haven of Iowa County.
These interactions can be broadly categorized under inappropriate physical interactions, using inappropriate clothing to dress the cat or inappropriate objects for them to interact with, and making loud noises near a cat that startle them.
For any video that showed at least one example of the 12 interactions, we also collected data on how many likes and views the video had received from TikTok users.