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How LOLCats and Laser Pointers Are Bad for Our Pets

The things we do to animals for the LOLs might not be as innocuous as they seem.

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This dog loves the laser beam, but it might wind up making him crazy. Image: Lynda Giddens

If there’s one thing we love, it’s animals doing wacky things. From YouTube videos of cats trying to stuff themselves, and each other, into boxes, to the dogs singing along to the piano, to dancing beluga whales, we simply cannot get enough animal weirdness. But for them, things aren’t so fun.

Take dogs, for example. They chase laser pointers. It’s hilarious. It is also probably driving the dog nuts. Life’s Little Mysteries explains why they chase them in the first place:

Dogs (and some cats) instinctively chase these bright-red dots simply because the dots move, said Nicholas Dodman, a professor of animal behavior at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. Movement automatically stimulates their innate prey drive, which explains why lower-on-the-food-chain animals such as rodents and rabbits often freeze in place as a survival strategy.

While having your dog scramble around the room following a little beam of light might seem hilarious to you, and an easy way to get the pooch some exercise, it’s probably not the best for the dog’s psyche:

“They can get so wound up and driven with prey drive that once they start chasing the light they can’t stop. It becomes a behavior problem,” Dodman said. “I’ve seen light chasing as a pathology where they will just constantly chase around a light or shadow and pounce upon it. They just spend their whole lives wishing and waiting.”

And that LOLcat you’re cracking up about? Chances are, it’s probably scared out of its mind right now. At OnEarth they explain how some of the classic hilarious animal poses are actually signs of distress:

The sign of a truly content animal is often vacant calmness, which doesn’t always make for exciting photographs. When animals are worked up or scared is when they tend to physically react, giving us perceived grins that are more often grimaces and wide eyes that are frightened, if adorable.

Laughing seals? Probably fighting. Laughing meerkats? Probably playing dead thinking they’re about to be lunch. Mowhawked cockatoo? Raised feathers are a sign of distress. Dancing lamb? Running from an oncoming car.

Do you feel like a bad person yet? It’s okay, you’re not alone. OnEarth spoke with Diana Reiss, an animal behavior researcher who specializes in dolphins:

Humans often misinterpret dolphins’ normal or slightly agitated expressions as smiles, Reiss noted. “We almost can’t help ourselves,” she told me — there’s an inherent human tendency to anthropomorphize almost everything that exists in the world around us, including the pics we see online. Humans are great at pattern recognition, so when we see something that we recognize, we ascribe human attributes to it, regardless of the actual situation. “If you just see a picture of a pig that’s looking really happy, it may not be happy to the pig, but you see it as happy because that’s all you know.”

So the next time you see a cat with a piece of cheese on its face, or a rabbit dancing, think about whether it’s actually enjoying itself, or whether it thinks its about to die. Then you can click “Like.”

 

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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