The Science Behind Why We Can’t Stop Watching Cat Videos


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. When dopamine is released in the brain, it creates feelings of enjoyment and reinforces behaviors. Scientific research has shown that dopamine release is associated withrewarding experiences like eating, sex, and drugs of abuse.

In recent decades, watching cat videos has emerged as a popular internet phenomenon. With the rise of platforms like YouTube, short funny or cute videos of cats have become incredibly popular to watch and share online. According to some estimates, there are now billions of cat videos publicly available online, with tens of millions of views.

History and Popularity of Cat Videos

Cat videos first started gaining popularity in the early 2000s with the rise of video sharing sites like YouTube. Some of the earliest viral cat videos included keyboard cat from 2007 and sneezing baby panda from 2006. According to the BBC, cat videos really took off around 2012 and 2013, which some have dubbed the “golden age of cat videos” (BBC). By 2013, there were over 2 million cat videos on YouTube with total views exceeding 26 billion, making cats one of the most watched animals online.

Some statistics on the popularity of cat videos:

  • In 2020, Google reported over 13 million cat searches per month and YouTube stated cat videos received over 25 billion views, more than any other category of videos on their platform (Treehugger).
  • A data analysis in 2013 found that the 800 most popular cat videos on YouTube had received nearly 770 million views at that time (BBC).
  • According to Wikipedia, Maru, one of the most famous internet cats, has received over 377 million views across various videos (Wikipedia).

Dopamine and Its Functions

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays important roles in motivation, pleasure, attention, and motor control. It is produced in several areas of the brain including the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area (Bromberg-Martin, 2010). Dopamine has been referred to as the “feel good” neurotransmitter because of its association with reward and pleasure. It is released when we experience enjoyable activities like eating, having sex, taking certain drugs, and receiving rewards. This dopamine release causes feelings of pleasure and reinforces behaviors (Wikipedia).

In terms of motivation, dopamine provides the drive and focus needed to seek out rewards and achieve goals. Dopamine signals in the brain indicate the expectation of a reward, which spurs action towards achieving that reward. Dopamine surges when the reward is finally attained, reinforcing behaviors that led to it. This is key to motivation and associative learning (2-Minute Neuroscience).

For attention, dopamine also plays an important role. It helps focus our attention on high priority stimuli that are rewarding or have motivational salience. Dopamine signaling filters out unimportant stimuli, allowing us to concentrate on what matters most in a given situation. Overall, dopamine’s influence on motivation, pleasure, and focus make it critical for many key brain functions.

Dopamine Release from Enjoyable Activities

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a major role in motivation, pleasure, and reward-driven behaviors. When we engage in enjoyable activities, dopamine is released in the brain, triggering feelings of pleasure and reinforcement to repeat those activities. According to Harvard Health Publishing, dopamine is released when we experience intrinsically pleasurable things like sex, good food, creative activities, music, and more.

There are many everyday activities that can trigger the release of dopamine. For example, the anticipation and consumption of food is a huge source of dopamine. Studies show that just the smell of food cooking can cause dopamine levels to spike. The actual act of eating, especially carbohydrate and sugar-rich foods, leads to a large dopamine release as well. This is one reason why food can be so pleasurable and potentially addictive for some.

Video games are another common dopamine-releasing activity. Game designers intentionally try to maximize dopamine release through rewarding feedback loops and a sense of accomplishment. The randomness of loot box rewards also taps into the dopamine pathway. Exercise can also increase dopamine, which creates the “runner’s high” and motivation to work out. Pretty much any enjoyable hobby like reading, socializing, shopping, playing music, etc. relies on dopamine release in the brain’s reward system.

Do Cute Animals Also Release Dopamine?

There is some evidence that cute animals may also trigger dopamine release in humans. Researchers at Hiroshima University found that viewing cute images of baby animals improved attention and concentration in study participants (

This is likely due to an evolutionary adaptation – humans are wired to find baby-like features cute as a way to motivate caring for human infants. Known as the “Kindschenschema” effect, humans find large eyes, chubby cheeks, and big heads cute across many species. When we see these traits, our brains register cuteness and reward us with dopamine.

Interestingly, dopamine may also be involved in our response to cute aggression – the desire to squeeze or even bite cute things. This paradoxical reaction is thought to be a way of regulating overwhelming positive emotion. By having an opposing feeling of mock aggression, our brain brings dopamine levels back to baseline.

Some experiments suggest that watching cat videos triggers dopamine release and activation of the brain’s reward system.

The Role of Dopamine in Watching Cat Videos

Viewing cute animals like cats and dogs taps into the dopamine-mediated reward system in the brain (1). Dopamine is a neurotransmitter involved in pleasure, motivation, and learning. When dopamine is released, it reinforces enjoyment of an activity and motivates us to repeat the behavior (2).

Research has found that looking at images or videos of cute baby animals activates the brain’s reward system and releases dopamine, similar to the response from eating chocolate or winning money (3). One study using fMRI brain scans found that viewing cute animal images lit up the nucleus accumbens, a reward-related region that also responds to primary rewards like food and sex (4).

The dopamine hit from cute animal videos is likely an evolved response, as caring for newborn animals promoted bonding, caregiving behaviors, and ultimately, survival of offspring. Today, this instinctual reward response remains activated when we view kittens, puppies, and other baby animals, including in online videos (5).




Other Explanations for Enjoying Cat Videos

While dopamine likely plays a role, it may not be the only factor that makes cat videos so enjoyable for many people. Social bonding, entertainment, and stress relief are other key explanations.

Watching cat videos can provide a sense of social connection and bonding. Even though the cats in videos are not physically present, viewers may anthropomorphize them and feel an emotional attachment, according to some researchers (CNN). This simulated social interaction releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” inducing warm feelings.

Additionally, people simply find cat videos entertaining. The amusing antics of frolicking felines provide lighthearted comedic relief from day-to-day stresses. Laughter and amusement also trigger endorphin and dopamine production. Unlike stressful or boring videos, cat videos hold attention with cute, silly content that lifts moods.

Finally, watching cat videos can reduce anxiety and lower stress levels. Viewing cute animals has a calming effect, lowering heart rate and blood pressure (WSJ). The silly antics distract anxious minds from worries and anxieties. For many, cat videos provide a mental break and act as a coping mechanism during stressful times.

Risks of Too Much Dopamine from Cat Videos

While enjoying cat videos in moderation is harmless fun for many people, overindulging can pose some risks. As with any pleasurable activity that releases dopamine, watching too many cat videos can lead to addictive behaviors and dopamine overload according to psychiatrist and addiction specialist Dr. Anna Lembke (Addicted to dopamine).

When we constantly see cute kittens doing silly things, our brains release dopamine, reinforcing the habit of watching more cat videos. Over time, this can condition the brain to crave more dopamine hits, leading to compulsively watching cat videos at the expense of more productive activities. Just as people can become addicted to drugs, gambling, or video games, some may become hooked on the dopamine rush of cat videos according to the addiction helpline at SAMHSA (SAMHSA’s National Helpline).

While an extreme addiction is relatively rare, experts recommend moderating time online and taking breaks from cat videos to avoid dopamine overload. Setting a limit on cat video viewing and engaging in other hobbies can help maintain a healthy balance. If compulsive cat video watching interferes with work, relationships or daily life, seeking help from a mental health professional or support group may be warranted (How To Overcome Dopamine Addiction). Overall, occasional cat video viewing seems harmless for most, but avoiding overindulgence helps prevent reduced productivity or unhealthy addiction.

Moderating Cat Video Viewing

While cat videos can provide a mood boost, it’s important not to overindulge. Some tips for keeping cat video watching in moderation include:

  • Set a timer or limit views to short sessions like 10-15 minutes.
  • Schedule cat video watching for certain times of day as a “treat.”
  • Balance viewing with other hobbies and self-care activities.
  • Make sure cat videos don’t interfere with responsibilities or take the place of human interaction.

There are many other healthy ways to get a dopamine boost that don’t involve screens. Activities shown to increase dopamine include exercising, listening to music, creative hobbies, socializing, achieving goals, and experiencing new things. Rotating through these types of activities can provide mood benefits while preventing overindulgence in any one dopamine source.


In conclusion, research suggests that watching cat videos does in fact lead to a release of dopamine in the brain. The cuteness and entertainment value of cats doing silly or adorable things likely triggers our reward centers. Though more studies are still needed, evidence indicates that cat videos can provide a quick boost of pleasurable dopamine, similar to other enjoyable activities we engage in.

However, it’s important not to overdo it on cat videos. Moderation is key as too much dopamine stimulation can potentially lead to downregulation of receptors. Like with any pleasurable activity, cat videos are likely best consumed in moderation as part of a balanced media diet. But used wisely, cat videos can be an effective way to get a quick mood boost or briefly escape the stresses of everyday life. Overall the research suggests cat videos can elicit a real neurological response, though individuals’ mileage may vary based on personal preferences. If you enjoy watching cat videos, there’s no shame as science shows they can give your brain a dose of happy chemicals.

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