A viral video series of a months-long attempt to condition a cat to like water has gripped the attention of TikTok, but experts are somewhat split on just how entertaining it really is.
Over a 50+ day period, TikTok user @olrue has been slowly introducing his cat Ollie to water, in a bid to condition him to like it, and has subsequently gained over 300,000 followers and a collective 11 million likes as people watch along.
He uses things he knows Ollie likes—treats, catnip and toys—and places them in a bath. Over the span of a few days he begins slowly introducing water to the tub. Despite results not being too obvious, Ollie seems to become slightly accustomed to the water, or at least isn’t necessarily jumping at the sight of it anymore.
In later videos, Ollie was taken to a swimming pool, where he was placed on a boogie board.
Inspired by the process, some other cat owners have also decided to “train” their cats to like water with their own takes on the videos, albeit without quite so many TikTok views.
But not everyone is sold, including experts Newsweek spoke about the conditioning attempts.
“Bathing a cat can be quite a traumatic experience for both cat and owner and so a gentle holistic approach is needed to make it as stress free as possible, Anita Kelsey, British cat behaviorist and author of Let’s Talk About Cats told Newsweek. “It is actually encouraging to see a cat guardian taking their time trying to introduce their cat to water over time and what I see in the videos are good practices that do not harm the cat, such as introducing water connected to positive associations using catnip and food.”
Daniel Cummings, behavior officer for UK charity Cats Protection, is more cautious: “It’s worth asking the questions why we are doing these things with the cat? Is it something that is for their benefit, or for our benefit, or personal gains? doesn’t seem like there is much benefit for the cat. And that’s not to pick on those videos. There’s plenty of videos out there where people try to train cats to do something they’re uncomfortable with without any sort of real benefit to the cat.
“If there is no benefit to the cat, then we need to ask ourselves why we are doing a particular task with the cat, so water, pools, baths etc, should be provided in a format that allows the cat choice as to whether to access it or not.”
Choice that, Cummings explained, is not there when a cat is on a surfboard in the center of a pool.
Kelsey agreed that the question of why a cat would need to be conditioned is an important one.
“It can work with training a cat sensibly and gently to tolerate water for a very quick bath session on the rare occasion it is needed but to train them to enjoy swimming with you may be totally unrealistic,” she said.
Moral dilemma aside, is conditioning a cat, even to simply tolerate a bath, working in the case of these viral videos? Cummings isn’t sure, judging from the body language in the short, spliced clips.
“The cat may to a certain degree, become more tolerant of being put in to a point where they might have not have eaten treats initially but now are eating treats, but certainly the cat doesn’t look very comfortable,” he explained. “So there’s no real evidence that any actual sort of conditioning has occurred.”
“A lot of these things come down to the reading of cat body language, often if a cat isn’t hissing or swiping there is a presumption that the cat is ‘OK’ when in reality owners often miss lower level stress body language cues or the cat suppresses their behavior due to stress.”
It’s this risk of misreading body language that is a main cause of concern with these trending videos.
In a bid to recreate their favorite viral series, TikTok users may accidentally cause “flooding,” a term used to describe when a cat is forced into a stressful or uncomfortable environment.
“There’s a real danger with viral videos of this kind or already out there, where people will then sort of repeat [what they’ve seen] in some instances,” said Cummings. “People may be inclined to try [what they’ve seen] and the cat may be super stressed by it.”