TikTok has established itself as the go-to social media platform for younger generations wishing to start and find social media “trends”. These typically involve new dance moves or lip-synced skits from famous films, but a series of new trends involving dogs have raised concern among canine professionals.
Pets, and in particular dogs, have always experienced popularity online but combined with an ambition to win likes and new followers, this can prove problematic. Some social media trends involve provocative behaviour, and others involve acting, both of which can result in unforeseen damage to trained animals. As a result, some veterinary professionals have started using the platform to publish criticism. This has only created a confusing environment where the lines between unofficial and expert advice are blurred. To prevent further harm, it is crucial that the industry considers this problem and responds with an appropriate mitigation strategy.
Dogs as a tool to gain popularity on social media
Dogs have featured on social media platforms since their creation, and some people’s canine companions have become so popular that they’ve become the stars of their own accounts, earning money for their owners. This has even led to several dog owners spending thousands of pounds cloning their dogs when they die (Lucas, 2022).
Healthy relationships between dogs and their owners rely on trust, and when owners start exploiting their dogs for tricks they cannot understand or benefit from, this trust breaks down
TikTok is different, though. It’s dominated by teenagers and young adults, with 80 percent of users between 16 and 34 years old (Doyle, 2022), and its short videos promote a trend culture that changes at a rapid pace. Users need to continually push boundaries to gain popularity – more so than on other platforms like Instagram, Twitter or YouTube. This environment has led to more and more videos involving dogs doing things that have the potential to endanger their health or even that of their owners. One trend, for example, involved people pretending to collapse in front of their pets, attempting to see their reactions. Another involved a dog owner teasing her Staffordshire Bull Terrier with a plastic and cotton ear bud. Unusual behaviour like this can confuse dogs, cause them unnecessary stress and even result in physical damage. This is because healthy relationships between dogs and their owners rely on trust, and when owners start exploiting their dogs for tricks they cannot understand or benefit from, this trust breaks down.
Furthermore, many trending pet videos involve actions that could lead to unforeseen consequences, like aggressive behaviours from otherwise calm dogs, which leads to unnecessary pressure on veterinary professionals. When dog owners teach their animals to perform tricks for a camera or participate in their videos, there is a chance they could create chronic behavioural damage which then has to be addressed by professionals who have other unavoidable health problems to tackle.
The veterinary backlash to dangerous trends
In response to these trends, many veterinary professionals who use TikTok have started publishing videos that criticise them. For example, one popular account used the platform to criticise users who lip-synced a film scene by shouting in their dogs’ faces. Not only did they address the fact that the dogs were obviously uncomfortable, but they also addressed the fact that there are other users on the app – such as very young children – likely to copy these trends and get hurt doing so. Though this might sound like a good thing, with professional experts trying to combat bad practice, truthfully, these reaction videos are only further complicating the situation.
When veterinary experts use TikTok to criticise these trends, they are in danger of damaging their reputations and the credibility of their expertise
TikTok is designed as a platform for non-professionals to share entertaining videos. When veterinary experts use TikTok to criticise these trends, they are in danger of damaging their reputations and the credibility of their expertise. The critical videos veterinary professionals publish can also stoke conflict with other creators, embroiling them in arguments when really they should be creating distance between themselves and the dog owners. Such reactions only confuse the line between unofficial and expert guidance for dog owners who need clear and practical advice.
Veterinary professionals should reinforce the message that owners need to bond with their pets in positive ways and become familiar with their body language to understand how they are feeling – after all, they are sentient beings. Vet professionals need to be the experts who pass on the message that pets can be dangerous and confusing behaviour towards them can trigger shocking responses when they feel threatened.
Veterinary professionals should reinforce the message that owners need to bond with their pets in positive ways and become familiar with their body language to understand how they are feeling
What can veterinary professionals do?
Better awareness of the risks of pets participating in social media trends and videos is required to reduce the damage they could cause. As an official point of contact for dog owners, veterinary professionals must adopt this task. Teaching dog owners the signs of a dog under stress – whale eye, pinned-back ears, teeth-baring, cowering, hunched body position, tail between legs, lip-licking, etc – should all be part of regular practice.
Alongside educating owners on pet behaviour, veterinary professionals should also make young dog owners and those with children aware of these trends and their potential dangers. Many owners tend to leave their dogs under their children’s care, assuming they are in safe hands while having little idea what can go on behind closed doors and underestimating the impact of unusual behaviours. Making it clear to owners that TikTok trends pose real threats to their pet’s development will encourage them to keep a more vigilant eye on their animals.
Making it clear to owners that TikTok trends pose real threats to their pet’s development will encourage them to keep a more vigilant eye on their animals
It is essential that this advice is provided through official professional channels. Personal TikTok accounts designed for entertainment do not serve well as serious educational tools. Some Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts might provide better options, as their platforms are designed to cater to professionals and organisations. Giving advice in person when new owners first visit and when older owners attend regular check-ups provides even better opportunities to offer guidance.
Over recent years it has become clear that TikTok is causing indirect damage to the health of people’s pets, often without the owners even realising it. Veterinary professionals need to address this problem, but they must do so in the right way and through appropriate channels, as instinctual angry responses only make the situation worse.