With his phone propped under his chin, a man scoops up his cat, so the camera is centred on the feline’s face. He puts his hands under the cat’s armpits and spins the animal around in a circle, with its back legs flying out behind it. The cat’s eyes are open wide and dart around the room throughout the video.

It is clear the cat is terrified.

Comments from viewers seem lighthearted, but touch on the stress the animal is under. One reads, “the slow increase in the fear in his eyes.” Another remarks, “He looks concerned, but he’s so cute!” Another is more blunt: “(Pets) all look terrified in these.”

The reel is one example of a growing controversy over “cute-animal” videos, as more and more pet owners cross the line between harmless fun and exploitation or even abuse, in their bid for views and likes on social media.

Concerns over the treatment of animals in social-media videos have risen with the advent of the “pet influencer” – an animal who is the star of a social-media site that showcases it doing tricks and skits, with the pet being the focus, and the human remaining largely behind the scenes.

People making pet videos are not just doing it for fun: pet influencing is big money now. Owners of popular pet-influencer channels get everything from free toys, treats and food for their pet, to free vacations and lucrative sponsorships. The top-earning owners can make as much as $100,000 a year, and there are even talent agencies specifically for pet influencers, according to TechCrunch magazine.

It’s no surprise that pet influencing has become a big business, given the popularity of animal videos.

For example, about 67 per cent of U.S households owned at least one pet and, of those, 30 per cent followed a pet influencer online, according to a 2019 study by researchers at the University of Alabama.

The popularity of pet influencers soared during the pandemic, as people turned to pets to cope with being locked down. One U.K. study found 87 per cent of pet owners surveyed said their pets helped them cope with the mental toll of a nationwide lockdown from April to May 2020.

The trend shows no sign of slowing down, with the most popular pet influencers drawing massive followings online. Jiffpom, a Pomeranian who is shown sporting different outfits, has some 20.6 million followers on Instagram. Girl With The Dogs, who films dogs being groomed, has 5.5 million followers on TikTok. The Quack House, a page featuring a duck who drinks ice water, has 4.9 million followers on TikTok.

But the trend has led to some disturbing extremes.

The cat-spinning video described above was part of a popular recent trend in which people would pick their animals up and spin them around while “August” by Taylor Swift played in the background. The audio has been used more than 230,000 times, and some videos have received upwards of 10 million likes, according to Forbes magazine.

Another trend, #barkatyourdog, also raised concerns. The trend involves getting up close to your dog’s face, barking loudly and then recording how the dog reacts. This can frighten the dog, or make it confused, thinking it had done something wrong, critics say. Both reactions lead to the dog not feeling safe in their home and cause unnecessary stress, they say.

“The last thing animals need is an industry that treats them as a dress-up doll or a TikTok prop, using them for money.”

Ashley Frohnert, director of social media, PETA

“The last thing animals need is an industry that treats them as a dress-up doll or a TikTok prop, using them for money,” said Ashley Frohnert, director of social media at the animal-rights group  PETA.

Cruelty to animals is all too common on social media, research shows. In a 2021 review of more than 2,000 videos of animals, the Social Media Animal Cruelty Coalition, an international animal-rights group, found that nearly 40 per cent contained instances of abuse.

While the pages exhibiting this abuse may not be advertised as pet influencer accounts, it shows a serious problem with animals being shown online in a negative, harmful way.

Examples of abuse include putting pets in a dangerous situation to film a fake rescue of the animal, participating in activities in which a pet is scared or stressed and instances where animals have been physically abused on-screen.

What can animal lovers do to prevent the exploitation and abuse of animals on social media?

Adria Barich, who creates pet content with her dog Oatmeal from their home in Los Angeles, says owners and viewers should pay close attention to the body language of an animal.

“If your dog’s body language is showing that they’re stressed in whatever situation you’re putting them in … I don’t think that … is necessarily the best thing to be sharing online.”

For example, she said she has seen videos in which a dog does the bunny hop, but it is moving in a way that suggests it might suffer from hip dysplasia, a condition aggravated by performing unnatural moves such as walking on its hind legs, she said.

Janet Cutler, an animal expert at Landmark Behaviour, a company based in Perth, Ont., that focuses on helping owners who have pets with behaviour problems, agrees body language is key to understanding whether an animal is happy.

“You’ll see a lot of changes in their face primarily. And that’s where a lot of the videos tend to focus,” she said.

“If your dog’s body language is showing that they’re stressed in whatever situation you’re putting them in . . . I don’t think that . . . is necessarily the best thing to be sharing online.”

Adria Barich, content creator with pet dog Oatmeal

Viewers can also speak out if they notice that an animal is looking scared.

“You can see things like the dog looking away from whatever it is that they’re scared of, or something called ‘whale eye,’ which is when you see the whites on the sides of their eyes. And usually that’s because they’re keeping their eye on what they’re scared of, Barich says.”

People simply need to be more critical of what they’re watching, she added. People need to be “looking at what the dog is doing, and not just going by the text on the screen or what you’re being told the dog is doing. Sometimes their behaviour actually shows something that’s opposite to that.”

Barich said that “viewers kind of have a responsibility to mention certain things they’re noticing about an animal in some content.”

Most animals online are treated well, she said, but “there’s always a few bad eggs. And I think that viewers need to be diligent on who we’re awarding our attention to.”

Showing viewers what goes on behind the scenes before a cute animal reel is shot can reassure them the animal is being treated properly, she added:

“I think there should be more content that shows … not just the perfect, polished shots that you might get of your dog in a costume, but how you set them up.”

Cutler agreed that there is nothing wrong with making content with your animal, as long as they are doing what they want to, adding that it can be beneficial for the owner-pet relationship. “If you’re filming something … as long as it’s positive for your (animal) it can help with bonding.”

Ethically produced animal content can foster positive feelings for animals and raising awareness of animal welfare issues, Frohnert said. “It’s nice to see people building empathy towards these animals with things like sanctuaries,” she said, citing the example of videos of animals in the care of shelters and sanctuaries, which can help boost fundraising and raise awareness.

One example of the positive impact of some pet influencers is the video series, Olive and Mabel, which went viral at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown. The videos showing the two Labradors, narrated by their owner, Scottish broadcaster Andrew Cotter, gained millions of views. Cotter used the proceeds of book sales and other activities based on the videos for a variety of charities, such as Sense Scotland, which provides support for people with disabilities.

While some of the videos show Olive and Mabel doing skits, most simply show them doing things they would normally do anyway.

Educating viewers and pet owners on how to make ethical content is key, said Frohnert.  “Education is the only way we can get through to people about these issues.”

Pet owners should pay a strong role in this, Barich said. In the past few months, she has shifted to making more educational content about dog care. She sticks to content where Oatmeal is doing everyday activities that he enjoys, such as swimming, she said, explaining that she wants to make content that is entertaining but that puts animal care first.

Ethical creators also need to respond well to any concerns raised by viewers, she added. Some might respond by saying, “ ‘This is my dog; don’t tell me what to do,’ ” while an owner who cares about their pet would “take this information and be like, ‘Maybe I should take my dog to a vet and get this checked out.’ ”

Pet influencers can help strengthen the bond between humans and animals, which is beneficial for everyone, said Barich.

“People fall in love with other people’s (animals) online, and they care about them.”