About six months ago, I noticed that my husband had developed a new, uncharacteristic habit. Usually, he spends his Sunday mornings reading the Washington Post from cover to cover. He still does this, but his newspaper reading is now followed by another routine: watching animal videos for about a half hour. Once done, he’s ready to do the chores he had been pushing off. My husband, a self-proclaimed hater of wasting hours on the internet, now habitually watches animal videos almost daily. He is far from alone. Internet data shows that there were more than two million cat videos posted on YouTube in 2014 alone, with almost 26 billion views. That number grows daily. And that’s only cat videos. There are videos posted daily on dogs, monkeys, pigs, raccoons, elephants, ducks, donkeys, rats, whales, and bats. Why are animal videos so popular? For some, animal videos may be merely a temporary escape from the work at hand. But for most of us, the increasing popularity of animal videos says something deeper about human nature. Here are the five most important things that our love of animal videos says about us.
1. Animal videos make us feel good about humanity.
A significant portion of animal videos that go viral are those in which animals are rescued. In a world in which we are constantly barraged with stories of human greed, cruelty, injustice, and trauma, it helps to be reminded of the generosity of humans. This video, which got more than 7 million views in just over one year, depicts humans banding together to save trapped dogs, cows, and donkeys. After watching this, you can’t help but be inspired by humanity.
We love to read about, hear, and see other people being kind to animals. I suspect that this need to be reminded is why my husband turns to animal videos after poring over the newspaper. In fact, we are neurologically wired to empathize with animals, as I detail in my latest book — which has all profits going toward animal causes. We experience empathy toward animals much like we do with other humans. Researchers from the Department of Psychology at Brandeis University and Pennsylvania State University found that when we are shown pictures of either humans suffering or dogs suffering, there is a great deal of overlap in our neural responses to both.
Empathy is the glue that holds groups together. When we empathize with another, we are sharing their experiences, the good and the bad, the joy and the suffering. It is a crucial component in human development and it forms the foundation for kindness, compassion, morality, and altruism. In The Empathic Civilization, social theorist Jeremy Rifkin describes empathy as “the very means by which we create social life and advance civilization.” Empathy enables us to care for one another, share our resources, and help others in times of need. As the numerous viral videos of animal rescues show, our empathy to help others clearly extends to animals.
2. Videos of happy animals make us feel happy.
When you walk through your front door at the end of a stressful day and your critter greets you, can’t you just feel your blood pressure lowering? Stroking an animal relaxes our autonomic systems, as measured by blood pressure, cortisol, and epinephrine levels, and by respiratory rate and skin temperature.
Numerous studies have indicated that contact with animals can boost our well-being. Being with animals can reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease and increase longevity by lowering our blood pressure, baseline heart rate, and cholesterol. Animals can also reduce our cardiac reactivity to stress and promote faster recovery from stressors. Animal companionship also improves our mental health by decreasing loneliness, depression, and anxiety. And here’s an important thing to note: Other species aren’t just substitutes for humans. The social support animals provide is independent of human social support. Animals seem to affect us in ways that are unique. They don’t judge us. They are there for us no matter what. They offer us physical contact and compel us to strip away social inhibitions.
If being with animals can provide a healing boost, can just watching videos of animals do the same? Social scientist Jessica Gall Myrick asked this question. In her study, she surveyed almost 7,000 people about their viewing of cat videos and how it affects their moods. She found that they were more energetic and felt more positive after watching cat-related online media than before. They also had fewer negative emotions, such as anxiety, annoyance and sadness, after watching cat videos.
We generally perceive scenarios with animals as more friendly, relaxing, cooperative, constructive, safe, and humorous. People in these scenes are also viewed as being less tense, less dangerous, happier, healthier, and wiser than people in scenarios without animals. Stressful places like hospitals, offices, schools, and, lately, airports, are taking advantage of the calming effects of animals. Just having an animal nearby makes the world a little less threatening, a little friendlier. Studies on those with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) find that a variety of animals, including pigs, sheep, chickens, opossums, horses, dogs, and cats, reduce depression and PTSD severity. In one study, psychologists noted an 82 percent reduction in symptoms. Many of the patients were able to cut back their need for medications. In one particular case, interacting with a dog for just one week enabled a patient to decrease the amount of anxiety they experienced and their need for sleep medications by half.
Oxytocin likely plays a key role in many of the beneficial effects we experience by watching animals. Produced as a hormone in the hypothalamus in our brains, oxytocin was classically associated with stimulating labor contractions and milk production in new mothers. Oxytocin promotes maternal care in animals and humans alike. In the past few decades, though, studies on oxytocin have suggested that it has more far-reaching effects.
Oxytocin circulates in both men and women. The list of what oxytocin has been found to do is long. It lowers heart rate and stress hormones and increases social interaction, generosity, bonding, and attachment. It also improves trust and decreases aggression and fear. In other words, oxytocin helps us feel happy.
Watch the video above of a pug getting a spa treatment, a rescued chimpanzee playing with his human dad, a bat munching on a banana, and a calf nuzzling a laughing man, and you won’t be able to help but smile.
3. Animal videos fulfill an innate human desire to connect with other species.
In a groundbreaking book, biologist Edward O. Wilson introduced biophilia as “. . . the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms.” Biophilia is the hypothesis that humans naturally connect with nature and animals and that our affinity is rooted in our biology. It is a love of life in its simplest definition. It is part of who we are as fellow animals on this planet. Although biophilia relates to all “living systems,” including plants, it is in our relationships with animals specifically where our biophilia is especially evident. If you were to look at the migration of people in the Western world from rural areas into cities in the 19th and 20th centuries, you would find a steady increase in the number of animals kept as pets. Historians have traced the rise in pet-keeping as it parallels our increasing urbanization. As we stepped away from rural living and lost daily contact with many animals, we sought them in other ways. We brought cats, dogs, birds, hamsters, and rabbits into our homes.
We choose to bring animals into our lives. They make the world a little less lonely. And a lot more fun. When we can’t bring animals into our homes, we look for them elsewhere. We visit wildlife sanctuaries, we join bird watching clubs, and we watch them online. It’s no wonder that videos such as the one above showing a goat, a pig, a sea lion, a turkey, a goose and a hen hugging, nuzzling, and running excitedly to greet their human friends garner hundreds of thousands of views. These videos help fill a void that is missing in our ever-increasing urban and digital lives.
Anthropologist Brian Fagan described in his book, The Intimate Bond, that “our urge to make a connection with fellow creatures is so powerful that it takes a lot to override it.” We seek a bond with animals. Our need to be with animals is so deep and instinctively strong that our biology is not just biophilia. It is animalphilia.
4. Animal videos allow us to recapture the wonderment and joy we experienced as children.
It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe when watching this flock of birds flying in unison, creating fluid shapes in the sky. Indeed, there is something wondrous about animals. They experience the world in ways we cannot even begin to fathom, and they can see, smell, hear, and feel things that are beyond our capabilities. What is it like to be a dog, a dolphin, or a mole? Although science has increasingly turned its collective head to the study of animal behavior, our ability to understand each animal’s unique world is woefully limited. Too often, the most we can do is imagine what their experiences are like. When we do take the time to imagine the lives of other animals, we are often instilled with a childlike awe and a desire to emulate them. No wonder many superhero traits model the abilities of animals. Who among us has not fantasized about flying, breathing underwater, or having super hearing?
Animal videos can take us back into our childhood selves, when we sought animals out and bonded with them so easily. We are born with a curiosity about animals. It stems from an inherent belief that animals are like us—no more, no less. Famous cartoonists like Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, and Charles M. Schulz intuitively knew this. The most memorable cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny, Scooby-Doo, Mickey Mouse, and Porky Pig are animals. In children’s stories, animals are written as characters with equally potent interior lives as humans. Kids fill their worlds with representations of animals on their clothes, in their bedrooms, and in books, television, and other forms of media. Nearly 90 percent of the characters in young children’s books are drawn from the natural world, and the vast majority are animals. When we watch videos of animals, they help draw us out of our human-centric world view and remind us of the vast diversity of life on our planet.
5. Watching other humans bond with animals validates our own love for animals.
Almost three-fourths of American households include companion animals. They are our cherished family members. We lavish our animal companions with affection, care for them when they are ill, and spend our hard earned dollars to indulge them.
Despite the evolving dynamics in our relationships with our companion animals, however, there is a certain stigma placed on those who love animals. All too often, societal pressures force individuals to value their love for animals far beneath their love for other family members or for humans in general. This is especially the case when a beloved animal dies. Instead of giving compassion and empathy, colleagues, friends, and even family members tell those who mourn an animal that they are being silly to care so much—after all, they say, they are just animals.
We laugh together and cry alone. Grief is even lonelier when an animal dies because it’s valued less than grief over the death of another human. Sociologists, psychologists, and psychiatrists have been slow to appreciate the impact of the loss of an animal. An animal’s death can cause poor sleep, missed days from work, significant distress, and depression. Among those who lose animals they deeply love, the extent of their grief is similar to that of those mourning the death of a cherished person.
But watching other people cry in joy when reunited with their lost animals after devastating tornadoes or hug and kiss their beloved dogs, cats, rabbits and horses is an affirmation of our own feelings for animals. We can love animals, unashamedly, unabashedly. And there is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, our compassion for animals should be celebrated as an important sign of human goodness and our immense capacity to love.