Research Paper: Working with trained cats in the UK media landscape

A large tabby cat sits aside a book and some glasses. He is looking very studious
This academical research paper outlines a guide to getting the best out of our feline friends on film sets.

A guide to getting the best out of our feline friends on film sets.

Author and Affiliations

Paula Stewart, Director of The Animal Talent Ltd., University of Central Lancashire BA (Hons) PR, University of Liverpool, MA MUSI, University of Edinburgh The Animal Welfare & Behaviour Team.

Abstract

In the absence of prior formal research into the subject of working with cats in a media setting, the author, Paula Stewart, presents this paper on working with cats on UK media productions and the issues that arise in studios when there is a general lack of knowledge about cats and their behaviour. 

Observational and experiential research has been conducted in order to evaluate current practices of working with cats in the UK media landscape.  It is evident that there is a huge gap between the expectations and realities of working with feline.  In order to protect the welfare of cats whilst keeping in line with production briefs, there is a real need for production crews to be presented with the correct information that will support them in understanding how to get the best out of a cat on set. 

The author identifies and discusses guidelines for both production teams and cat handlers in order to better understand the filming with animals process in the UK and provide an insight into how issues on set can be avoided.  It is clear that production crews, legislative personnel and sometimes photographers or videographers have a real lack of knowledge on the biological, physical and emotional characteristics of cats and therefore have unrealistic expectations of working with felines in a filming location.  There is a disparity between the welfare of the animal, the achievable skill set of the animal and the ideas on a film’s storyboard.  This, coupled with the handler’s desired outcomes for filming with their cat, can cause friction in a filming environment. 

More research into the behaviour of cats is required, however, the author has suggested some guidelines to assist production crews with understanding how to get the best out of a cat on set.  It is noted that production crews would do well to learn the nature of felines and their key behaviours and ideally, a formal set of guidelines should be presented to the crew before filming commences so that expectation and reality meet.

Introduction

This paper discusses the importance of the careful handling of cats on set or in a location-based filming situation and suggests the best working practices for filming with animals for media purposes. 

For the purposes of this paper, the author has concentrated on the filming of cats in particular (as opposed to dogs, for example), since cats are frequently filmed for media purposes and are one of the most owned pets in the UK.  That being said, there seems to be a general public misconception that cats cannot be trained, that they are largely intolerant of people and that they are unwilling to ‘perform’ tricks or follow human commands.  This poses a significant problem for content media producers, directors and photographers whose task it is to work with cats on filming projects.

In the UK media industry, cats are regularly featured in films, TV commercials, TV series and also social media adverts and content.  Producers tasked with sourcing trained cats often have little experience of working with felines and can have preconceptions about how filming should be undertaken.  These preconceptions develop a level of expectation from the film crew that can detrimentally affect the cat and the cat’s handler in a filming situation.

This paper discusses the reasons why cats are used in media, the expectations versus the reality of working with cats in media, the film crew perspectives and objectives, the cat handler’s perspectives and objectives, and finally the author’s suggested guidelines for future cat wrangling on film sets.

Materials and Methodology

Given the nature of this topic, the research undertaken has been qualitative throughout with the addition of quantitative research previously completed by authoritative organisations including the PIF (Pet Industry Federation) and the PFMA (Pet Food Manufacturers Association).

Literature review:

The statistical figures presented within this paper  relevant organisations that are involved in animal welfare.  The literature cited in this paper is listed in the references, however, it is worth noting that the following organisations have carried out quantitative research on cat ownership records:

  • Pet Industry Federation
  • Pet Food Manufacturers Association
  • PDSA
  • RSPCA

One of the only documents ever written about filming with animals was published by the RSPCA in 2012 and was titled ‘Guidelines for the Welfare of Performing Animals’ (RSPCA, 2012).  This document can no longer be accessed by lay people, and is only available to production companies; however, the RSPCA do offer a phone number for advice on the subject.  Clearly, this document is nearly a decade old and needs to have current reviews.  Please note, this document is also only a list of guidelines and it is not fully backed by legislation. 

That being said, The Animal Welfare Act (2018) has been designed to protect performing animals.  It is the author’s view that the writing of this Act does not include all animals and certainly isn’t specific enough for any singular species.  The Act also does not cover all eventualities for the filming of animals and is limited in its coverage when it discusses ‘performance’.  From the author’s experience, the AWA 2018 is enforceable by local councils in the areas of filming, usually by people who have no interest in animals and people who certainly do not have the training to understand the behaviour of said animals.  They are also not fully versed in the legalities behind this Act and thus do not understand the intricacies of the legal language used within it. 

Both these sources of information are therefore limited in their ability to assist production crew and animal handlers who are tasked with this filming cats for media content.

As the literature surrounding the filming of cats for media content is extremely limited, this paper has been written in order to discuss the areas for improvement within the industry and offer best practice guidelines for these events.

Experiential Research

Paula Stewart, Director of The Animal Talent Ltd., has 6 years’ experience of working in animal talent and casting agencies, namely Urban Paws UK Ltd and The Animal Talent Ltd.  During this time, Stewart has worked on around 200 jobs involving cats in the media and draws on that experience for the purpose of this paper. 

Prior to this, Stewart volunteered for community organisation, ‘Scouse Pets’ which was a search, scan and reuniting service for lost pets in the Merseyside area.  She has also completed fundraising for several of the North West’s animal shelters (including Freshfields Animal Sanctuary) and volunteered as a kennel worker for Merseyside Dogs Home, assisting shelter dogs.  Stewart currently volunteers for Beastwatch UK, a search and rescue organisation for UK’s exotic animals. 

The author’s credentials and qualifications at the time of writing have been listed in Appendix 1.  These qualifications look at the behaviour of various animals, including cats.  In each of these arenas, understanding of cat behaviour and characteristics has been gained. 

Observational Research

Having worked as a casting and booking agent for two separate agencies and having handled animals on filming locations since 2016, the author has observed feline behaviour at cat shows on the GCCF and TICA circuits, in a media setting (on location and studio filming) as well as handling her own pet cats.  The author holds the privileged position of being able to observe from the eye of an animal wrangler, agent, rescuer and animal welfare enthusiast. 

Examples of observations to support this research include the following filming events:

  • Worcester Bosch Cat Advert (2018)
  • Everclean Cat Litter Pet Product Photoshoot (2019)
  • 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown (2019)

Interviews

Interviews with the following people have been conducted in order to gain understanding of the views of people who work within the animal acting industry:

  • Laura Ingall of Pets On Set Ltd.: animal wrangler and casting agent
  • Carol Walker of Claws Up & Purrsonal: Cat photographer and cat handler

The author also draws upon several years’ experience and conversations with personal contacts within the animal talent industry with which to base this research upon.

Results

Having conducted the research, it transpires that one of the main areas for confusion is in the lead up to the content filming as so many people are involved in the decision making process throughout each production.  This directly affects filming the content on the day and this is where animal welfare can become compromised.

For context, the process of a media production involving a cat, and the staffing levels for filming cat related content, is examined below:

The process of filming with cats:

For the purpose of this paper, the following chart demonstrates best practice of a production process.

Text Box: Production company has a filming brief that involves a cat; this could be a static or moving image.  Production company looks to hire a trained cat.
 
•	An animal agent gets a call or email describing the brief and the requirements of the production.
•	The animal agent considers which cat on the roster is suitable for the brief and then contacts the owner of the cat to see if they are available and if their cat can perform the requirements comfortably.
•	The agent will request video footage of the actions being performed or the agent will visit the owner and cat to assess the actions.
 
•	If the production company selects the cat (based on the evidence of the cat’s performance and based upon the appearance of the cat fitting the brief), the cat will be booked for the production.
•	The agent and production team should have completed risk assessments of the filming location with a particular focus on the suitability for filming with animals.  All information should be passed on to the cat handler and / or owner.
•	Advice regarding filming with cats should be given to the production crew in order to prepare them for filming day.
 
•	Once the booking is confirmed, the owner and/or handler of the cat will practice the requested behaviours and additional training will be completed if so required.
•	Prior to filming, the cat may be washed and groomed.  
•	Correct travel and safe transportation of the cat to the site must be guaranteed and procedures confirmed in advance.
•	The cat owner may reduce the cat’s food intake on the day of production in order to accommodate the amount of treats the cat will consume on the day of filming.
 
On the day of production, either the cat owner, or the handler will attend the shooting location with the cat.  Sometimes, the owner and handler are one and the same; sometimes the handler is a separate cat trainer. 
 
•	Upon arrival, the cat and handler should be left to settle in a green room / rest area / shelter.  Once settled, the cat should be allowed to roam in the area in order to familiarise himself with his surroundings.  
•	An on-set vet should assess the health of the cat and check for any stressors.
•	The cat should be introduced to the filming crew and any actors or models that the cat needs to work with as part of the filming.
 
•	As filming commences, all efforts should be made to ensure there is silence on set, all doors and escape routes are closed and that there is as little distraction as possible.  This is to allow the cat and handler to work effectively.
•	The cat should be given as many rest breaks as required and filming should cease if the cat is uncomfortable at any time.  Filming hours should only last as long as the animal is comfortable.
 
•	Upon completion of filming, the cat returns home for rest and the edit of the content is completed.  
•	The agent receives payment for the hire of the animal and from there all relevant parties are recompensed.
•	The content is published or broadcast on the relevant media channels.
fig 1.: Production Process

Human involvement:

  • Animal owner
  • Animal handler / wrangler / trainer
  • Council staff / Defra representatives (who assess the handler and owner for licensing)
  • Production crew:  producer, assistant producer, camera men, director, assistant director, runners, venue staff, car park attendant, studio receptionist, location owner, actors, models.
  • On set vet
  • Animal casting agent and relevant staff

With so many process and people involved in each production, it is easy to see where things can go badly wrong, either for the animal or the production crew, or both.

It is also evident how filming with cats can easily cause concern for both the production crew and content creators as well as the animal owner and handler (and any other party concerned with the welfare of the cat being filmed). 

The research has shown that there can be (and should be) positive experiences on set, yet there are also areas for improvement, as outlined below:

Negative filming experiences

Things can and do go wrong on set when filming with animals.  Some examples are provided below:

  • Cat is scared on set
  • Cat is injured
  • Cat flees set
  • Cat hides
  • Cat refuses to work
  • Cat spooked by noises and expresses fear
  • Cat refuses to perform the actions
  • Cat injures a human
  • Cat is attacked by another animal
  • Cat attacks another animal

Each of these negatives affects not only the animal, but the animal’s owner, and the production team.  For each party, this is a welfare concern as well as having an emotional impact.  On top of this, an animal’s failure to perform can be very costly; the production crew may lose money on studio hire, staffing hours, animal hire, insurance and more, whilst the animal owner could incur travel costs, vet fees and more.

Areas for improvement

It is evident that there is a necessity to do more to protect the wellbeing of cats in filming situations and that every member of staff connected with the cat on any given media production should have guidelines to follow.  Suggested improvements are as follows:

  • Production crew should take time to understand the nature of cats; their natural behaviours and instincts.
  • Production crew should see the event as a positive experience; having a positive outlook on set is necessary (cats and humans can be affected by emotional projections).
  • Crew that are not familiar with cats should read the information about cats that they’ve been sent from the agent so that they understand risks on set.  Acknowledging and understanding the risk assessment assists with this process.
  • Agents should adequately assess requirements and inform the production crew of everything they will need to know with regards to cats at work in this type of environment.
  • The production crew should ensure that the location has been cat-proofed; for example, blocking escape routes, providing adequate shelter, removing dangers to cats (including some food items).
  • Clear communication among all parties involved in the production is essential.
  • The owner / handler should ensure proper preparation and training for the cat actor in advance.
  • Adequate settling-in time for the cat on set should be provided.

Positive filming experiences

In an ideal world, filming with cats for media can be positive.  For example:

  • The cat is confident and happy on set.
  • The cat performs all the required actions from the brief in a comfortable manner
  • The cat is allowed appropriate settling-in time and rest breaks
  • Staff are confident and happy on set
  • The cat is rewarded for his positive behaviour and enjoys the process of bonding time with his handler.
  • The cat has had appropriate mental stimulation and has found enrichment from his experience
  • The owner / handler of the cat is satisfied that the cat has remained happy and healthy
  • The production crew has gained the required results and is happy with the shots they have captured.

Discussion

Following the research completed as outlined in the methodology, it is interesting to consider the key areas that influence the results outlined previously.

Why cats are used in media content?

There are 10.9 million cats in the UK, which is one million more than the 9.9 million dogs who live in the UK (PDSA, 2020).  24%2 of UK households own a cat, so when it comes to marketing, it would be crazy not to take advantage of this.  That’s why cats in advertising are so important.

From Grumpy Cat to Choupette, Tom to Sylvester, and from Felix to Top Cat, felines have been used in media for as long as we can remember.  They have bags of personality and charisma and it’s easy to understand why cats are often thought to exude class.  They can be carefree and cosy, loving and intelligent.  In mythology, cats symbolise mystery and magic, conjuring images and themes of rebirth with their nine lives.

Cat owners in the UK spend an average of £100 a month on their pets, which equates to £9.6 billion being spent on cats each year (MoreThan, 2019) and that’s quite a market. 

Many people think it’s easier to work with dogs because they’re easier to train, but training of cats is becoming more and more popular in the UK. Cats are indeed trainable; many cats| love the attention they get on set and they love the time spent bonding with their humans.

The expectations versus the reality of working with cats in media:

Often, the most difficult part of working with cats on set is the expectation of the production team.  Very often, a production team thinks it’s going to be very hard work with a cat and this isn’t always the case.  If the correct procedures are followed, excellent results can be achieved.

On occasion, however, some production teams think that a ‘trained cat’ will perform like a robot and follow every command.  It’s easy to forget that although you’re working with an experienced animal actor, they are (after all) animals.  It isn’t as easy to communicate with animals effectively as some people think.  It’s important to remember that animals are not props and nor are they robots.

In either scenario, the production team wants the cat to turn up on set, cooperate with all the crew, follow the commands and get off set as quickly as possible.  However, the reality is that the cat is wondering why on earth it’s in this new environment and why there are so many people around. 

Producers often ask strange questions of an agent that demonstrate a lack of understanding about working with animals.  Examples include:

  • Can you get the cat to smile?
  • How do you make the cat look angry?
  • Can the cat walk on a wall at the side of a main road?
  • Can the cat work out in the open?
  • Can the cat pretend to be shy?
  • We’re shooting in a park and would like the cat to play football with kids.  We’ll make sure the cat is safe, so is fencing really necessary?
  • Is a harness and lead necessary in the outdoors?

This type of question does not take into account the welfare of the animal and the focus is more on the end product of content creation.

It is important to take advice from the handler and work within the cat’s capabilities on that day.  Liaising with a certified vet who will consider appropriate the shoot requirements would also be best practice. 

In terms of the animal owner / handler, common expectations are:

  • The cat will be treated kindly and with respect
  • The cat won’t be asked to do anything other than planned in the original brief
  • The animal’s health and safety is paramount
  • The cat will be able to cope with the environment and the people within it
  • The cat will enjoy his time on set
  • Training a cat for media work is good mental stimulation and encourages bonding between human and cat
  • The cat will become ‘famous’
  • The owner will be paid handsomely for their time

In all cases, the expectations of the production process have major disparities with the actual events.  The animal agent should be the middle party between the cat owner / handler and the production team and in doing so, should manage expectations from both sides.  The below list is a set of questions that filter out incorrect production expectations:

  • Where is the cat filming? 
  • What is on the storyboard?
  • What emotion are you trying to capture?
  • How long will the cat be on set?  How long is filming?
  • Will there be any other animals on site? 
  • Have there been any other animals on site that day or the day before? 
  • What facilities are there for rest, feeding, watering? 
  • What is the appropriate shelter condition for the animal if it is too hot or too cold on set?
  • Is a vet on site to monitor the animal? 
  • Who is the animal first aider?
  • Who will be in the room while filming? 
  • What noise levels are there? 
  • What lighting will be used? 
  • Is there flash photography?
  • Are there any potential escape routes for the animal?
  • How will the animal travel to and from set safely?
  • Where is the nearest animal hospital?

Taking all of these factors into consideration, the author has proposed that there is a more rigid set of guidelines for the humans involved at each stage of the production process.  It is imperative that each person knows their role and what they have to do on their part to make the production process a positive one. 

Conclusion

As a result of the research conducted and having identified the key problematic areas of working with cats in media, it is proposed that the guidelines suggested by the author are adhered to when the practice is undertaken.

Careful consideration must be given to the animal’s welfare at all times though we also must endeavour to respect the requirements of the production team and film crew.  Filming with animals for media is generally done so for educational, entertainment or financial reasons but that should not negate the fact that cats in the UK are recognised as sentient beings (Harvey, 2021); as such they should be treated with their welfare needs at the heart of everything they are involved in.

From the research conducted, it is clear to see that there is a significant gap between the expectations (whether negative or positive) of working with cats and the actual reality of handling a working cat.  In order to get the best out of any animal, it is clear that the animal should enjoy themselves and that this will result in the best emotional response for the media production, as well as legitimising the need for having cats filmed for media content.  Ingall (2021) states:

I can’t reiterate how important it is to make sure the cats you hire, are trained film cats. I have heard some horror stories this week of cats disappearing and hiding in studios, cats that are so shut down and terrified, they’re rooted to the spot, and one cat actually being sick from fear. It’s not fair to put any animal in a situation that it’s not 100% comfortable with. They have no idea you’re trying to make a commercial or a tv show, they are just there for the fun. So if it’s not fun for them, it’s just plain cruel. If you need to, ask for footage of the animal working so you can see if it is relaxed in a set environment. Cats CAN be trained, so please don’t settle for anything less!

Animal handlers film their cats for posterity, teaching the cat tricks, bonding, confidence building, and financial gain (although Carol Walker donates her money to charity).  Production teams wish to work with cats because they elicit a high emotional response.  For these reasons, there needs to be a unified process in place and a clearer understanding with better communication between all parties involved in the production.  Filming with cats can be a positive, rewarding experience for all involved.

Acknowledgements

Paula Stewart, Director of The Animal Talent Ltd. and author of this paper would like to thank the following people for their contributions to this work:

  • Pat C Stewart & Petra Stewart for their endless support.
  • Paul Stewart, forever missed, for his inspiration.
  • Laura Ingall for her feedback, even when I didn’t want it.
  • Carol Walker for being one of the best, most understanding cat handlers I’ve ever met and for giving so many cats a happy home.
  • Simba, Twilight & Purdy, Smudge & Stripe, Bilbo & Frodo, Fraggle & Suki, and Cheetah for being fabulous felines in my life.

Literature & Media References

Worcester Bosch Cat Advert; UK TV commercials 2018: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwH–olxmVM

Everclean Cat Litter Pet Product Photoshoot (2019): https://www.ever-clean.co.uk/

8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown (2019): https://www.instagram.com/tv/CDtuAf2pBom/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Fiona Harvey, The Guardian, 2021: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/may/12/animals-to-be-formally-recognised-as-sentient-beings-in-uk-law

Guidelines for the Welfare of Performing Animals(RSPCA 2012)

Animal Welfare Act (2018): The Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018 (legislation.gov.uk)

PDSA report (2020): https://www.pdsa.org.uk/get-involved/our-campaigns/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report/uk-pet-populations-of-dogs-cats-and-rabbits

MoreThan Insurance report (2019)

Appendix 1

Paula Stewart’s credentials and qualifications

  1. Nominations:

Businesswoman of the Year Award Nominee – Women’s Business Conference 2020

SME Business Owner of the Year Award Nominee – Women’s Business Conference 2021

Animal Hero of the Year Nominee – Animal Star Awards 2020

  • Animal Behaviour Qualifications

Animal Behaviour & Welfare – The Animal Behaviour and Welfare Team, The University of Edinburgh

The Truth About Cats & Dogs – The Animal Behaviour and Welfare Team, The University of Edinbrough

9 Elements of Tellington TTouch – Xtra Dog

Building the Bond with Gail Skinner – Xtra Dog

Understanding Tellington TTouch – Tellington TTouch & Xtra Dog

Calmness Rocks – Xtra Dog

Observing Humpback Whales – The Oceania Project and Xtra Dog

Canine Body Language -Dog Training College

Travelling With Dogs Safely with Helene Svinos – Xtra Dog

Reactive Rascals – Dog Training College

Tellington TTouch for Puppies and Foals with Robyn Hood – Tellington TTouch & Xtra Dog

Dog Bite Prevention – Xtra Dog

Canine First Aid Level 2 VTQ – Pawsitively Does It & Pro Trainings

  • Volunteering

Scouse Pets: Scanner (Feb 2016 – May 2019)

Reuniting the lost pets of Liverpool by assisting families with advice, contacts and sharing information. Searching for lost pets and once they’ve been found, scan their microchips in order to help return them to their rightful owners.

Merseyside Dogs Home: Kennels Volunteer (Mar 2016 – Apr 2017)

Assisting the kennel staff in their daily duties, looking after the animals and helping the stray dogs of Merseyside to find new homes.

BeastWatch UK: Animal Handler (Feb 2021 – July 2023)

BeastWatch UK is a national voluntary organisation whose members are concerned with the investigation into sightings of non-native animals in the UK. Provide support to owners of missing exotic pets & assist in their recapture as well as dealing with animals which appear abandoned.  BeastWatch also deals with wildlife emergencies.

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