Movies and TV shows are infinitely better when a dog or cat is on the screen. Heck, let's get real, it's better when any animal is within view.
I've always been very curious about the animals, insects, and plants we share this earth with, and as someone who has tested out almost every free trial of streaming service available, I've spent a lot of quality time with documentaries about dogs, cats, fungi, and crows, among many other living things.
Below is a list of some of what I would consider the best, most interesting, or most family-friendly programs about animals, wildlife, and nature (that I've seen so far). Many of them I was originally able to stream elsewhere but are now only available on Amazon — but it's possible they'll reappear on other streaming services in the future!
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I am also someone whose eyes produce projectile tears during anything remotely sad and sometimes when I'm really happy for people, like the Jeopardy! Teen Tournament winners — they get me every time. This is why I like to know what I'm getting myself into ahead of time, so you'll notice I've included a "cry-o-meter" scale for like-hearted sensitive viewers.
You'll notice that there aren't very many non-fiction recommendations and that's because almost everything with animals as main characters is impossible to watch without yelling at the screen when you work for a preventive veterinary company.
I'll be adding new movies, TV shows, and even podcasts, as often as I can, but would love for you to share any suggestions in the comments below, or feel free to drop me a note with your recommendation.
Movies, TV, and Special Programming for Dog People
Cry-O-Meter: 10+ | (83 min. on Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play)
Let me start this off by saying that everyone should watch this documentary — it is incredibly powerful, inspiring, and also heartbreaking.
This film takes you into the lives of Danny and Ron, an amazing couple who run a wonderful (and mind-blowingly clean) dog rescue, Danny and Ron's Rescue, out of their house.
We see the ups, downs, and even the very difficult decisions that need to be made in rescue work and it's probably the perfect movie to watch after listening to our podcast about the benefits of adopting senior pets!
Pro-Tip: This is a great viewing setup – a beverage, a box of tissues, and a dog (not pictured) nearby.
I started crying about five minutes in, and didn't stop until probably an hour or two after it was already over and my wife had try to cheer me up with old episodes of Guy's Grocery Games.
This documentary broke the Cry-o-Meter scale and took me into this three-phase Claire Danes crying sequence, but I still give it two VERY enthusiastic thumbs up.
Cry-O-Meter: 1 | (52 min. on Netflix)
I can't lie, I was steeling myself for this series because I was worried it would be too much for my tear ducts to take. But after the ugly crying session that was my last review, I figured it was time. Heck, I may even be ready to read Where the Red Fern Grows, again. (Just kidding, I will never be ready to read that again).
This first episode of the Netflix docu-series centers around a family whose daughter suffers from epilepsy. They have decided to bring a service dog into their home to give them more peace of mind and ensure the daughter has a constant companion who will alert her and the rest of the family to an oncoming seizure.
Overall, it was interesting, but I wish they gave more time to the dogs and the special training that goes into preparing them from the time they are born to take on this important job.
I've heard each episode is very different, so stay tuned for more!
I think I shed more tears the first time I looked at the poster for this series than I did while watching this particular episode, and most of my crying had nothing to do with what was on screen, and everything to do with thinking about how amazing service animals are.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (1hr 30 min on Amazon)
Best in Show is a mockumentary that only Christopher Guest could make. This hilarious flick follows some of the dogs and handlers competing on the dog show circuit as they vie for the top prize at the Mayflower Kennel Club Dog Show.
If you haven't seen this yet, I'm going to ask, nay, demand that you do yourself a favor and watch as soon as possible.
Do I even need to name drop Eugene Levy and Catherine O'Hara? Or Jennifer Coolidge? Or Parker freaking Posey?!!
This movie is an absolute classic that should be celebrated regularly.
Need something light and easy for your spirit? This sweet little documentary from 2008 did the trick.
This film examines the special bonds people like Edie Falco, Glenn Close, and Christopher Meloni, share with their dogs. I'm not one to get caught up in celebrities but once you get their pets involved, I am totally on board.
To be completely honest, I came into this thinking it would only be fluff, but was delightfully surprised at how genuinely interested I became in what these people had to say about the unconditional love and healing a dog can provide.
Cry-O-Meter: A solid 8 | (50 minutes, on Amazon)
For some reason I decided to dive head-first into the emotional puddle I become at the mere mention of animal abuse.
This is an important film to watch, and was actually slightly less difficult than I imagined.
Surprisingly, it also gave me a new perspective about farmers, Amish or otherwise, and how difficult it can be to provide for your family and maintain your livelihood in modern culture.
It takes a really special breed of human to advocate for animals and be a voice for the voiceless. The team of people featured in this film are remarkable.
"Madonna of the Mills" had me choked up before the credits were finished. I didn't cry until about half-way through, but when they came, the tears were plentiful. My wife and I were both surprised at how many tears were shed on the cry-o-meter scale, but I'm going to attribute most of them to 5 minutes of the film that almost seemed like a surprise cameo from ASPCA ad campaigns.
Cry-O-Meter: 7 | (1hr 11min on Amazon)
I'm sure you could guess this based on the title alone, but just for extra clarity, this documentary is not for someone just looking to learn more about dogs, and enjoy their cuteness. That being said, there is no lack of cuteness or education.
This documentary follows a small group of inmates going through the Fishkill Prison Puppies Behind Bars program. "The inmates have two years to teach their dogs more than 100 commands to help veterans live with PTSD."
The film is sweet, intense, heartwarming, a little heartbreaking, and is ultimately a rare and honest glimpse into PTSD, prison, and what an incredible impact dogs can have in our lives. Not only are these particular dogs making lives better, they are also giving the prisoners a purpose.
Oh I cried. The first tears fell about two minutes in, and came down at regular intervals throughout the entire film. Some were definitely from sadness, but most came from the amazing gift that dogs, and animals of all kinds, are. Their healing powers are incredible. We have a lot to learn from them.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (44 min. currently not streaming but will update if we can find it again)
This is a really interesting and family-friendly documentary that provides fun scientific experiments to give us a glimpse into the world from a dog's perspective.
Many theories are tested, and some findings may change the way you understand your pupper! Zero tears were shed, but a few experiments were conducted at home, including the yawn test.
Cry-O-Meter: 1 | (48 min on NPR website)
Give your eyes a break and give a listen to an old episode of the Fresh Air podcast featuring Alexandra Horowitz, author of "Being a Dog," which explores the mysteries of the canine nose and its extraordinary abilities.
While we've got highly trained bomb-sniffing dogs, dogs who can sniff out cancer and COVID-19, and pups trained to be able to tell when a seizure is imminent, some domesticated dogs are losing their amazing sense of smell because nose work isn't as encouraged in our homes, or even when we're out on walks.
Due to societal pressures, it's difficult to not always be "on the go" and pulling our pups along with us. But our dogs are a great literal reminder to stop and smell the roses, so let's take some time do it together.
In general, there were no tears (and mostly just cool science), but I couldn't help shed a few towards the end when Horowitz talks about her beloved late pup, Pumpernickel.
Movies, TV, and Special Programming for Cat People
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (50 min. on Amazon)
Well, it's official, cats are the cutest predatory hunters around (but you didn't need me to tell you that). This is a really interesting and nicely produced look at the history of, and the science behind, cats and what makes them tick.
Ever wondered why they like the night so much? What that weird clicky-chatter sound they sometimes make is? Or how they can fit through spaces that look too small for their bodies? This little documentary does a great job of curating some of the kitty curiosities. And even if you don't care about the science, there is plenty of floof to enjoy.
There were no tears shed while watching, but I did squirm slightly when an outdoor cat's hunting skills were (briefly) visualized. Definitely recommended to watch with the lion in your living room.
This movie is an utter delight! I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats (the musical, not the felines). This is a heartwarming film that beautifully tells the story of what happened when a former drug addict busking the streets meets (or really gets adopted by) a street cat.
First of all, let me tell you that this is based on a true story. But second of all, let me astonish you when I tell you that BOB PLAYS HIMSELF!! Yes, that is Bob in the movie poster, and that alone should make you want to see this movie. However, there are many other reasons.
I think part of what I enjoy so much about this movie is how much it highlights what magical, empathic, creatures animals are, the power they have to help us change ourselves, and show us what it means to love and be loved by another being unconditionally.
There were plenty of happy tears to go along with the sad ones, but what really pushed this cry-o-meter scale to the edge, was the fact that as the credits rolled, my wife (who is not a crier) tearfully exclaimed, "Everyone needs to see this movie!"
If you've got great vision and can read the tagline of the movie poster, you'll see that it reads, "Sometimes it takes nine lives to save one," and it's true.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (1hr 15 min on Amazon, PlutoTV, and TubiTV)
Ever wondered what the cat show circuit was like? Now you can take a behind-the-scenes look into the lives of some of the judges, owners, as well as the fiercest competitors hoping to take home the title of Canada's top cat.
It's like Best in Show, but not a mockumentary, and filled with incredibly impressive and adorable felines. Like many things Canadian, this documentary is adorable.
If I'm being completely honest, I did cry just a little... but I'm going to assume most of you won't tear up about a cat's retirement party.
Cry-O-Meter: 5 | (55 min on Amazon)
Let me start this recommendation by telling you my wife and I watched this on a Friday night when we were exhausted and had already had a drink or two.
We were concerned that if the movie was subtitled, it would likely be lost on us. But, this absolute gem of a documentary was so good, we couldn't turn it off, and we even kept up with the reading!
The film features the large population of cats living on the small Japanese island of Tashirojima, who have been cared for and hold a unique relationship with an amazing, and unfortunately dwindling, elderly community.
This was an easy 5 on the cry-o-meter scale, and it's actually a surprise that it wasn't higher due to the winning combination of elderly folks and cats. I highly, highly recommend this movie.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (80 min. on Amazon and Redbox)
What a delight! A Turkish delight, even! This absolutely charming documentary follows some of the street cats of Istanbul and interviews the humans taking care of them.
I couldn't understand the first five minutes because Mazel was blocking the subtitles, but I'm fairly certain no major plot points were missed.
In fact, I believe the biggest takeaway from this film can be summed up in a quote from one of the people featured:
"Life is beautiful if you know how to live. You can love if your heart’s eye is open. Everything is beautiful when you look at it with love. If you can enjoy the presence of a cat, a bird, a flower... what can I say, all the world will be yours."
Cry-O-Meter: 10 on a guess | (9 minutes, on YouTube or watch below)
Let me start by saying I haven't watched this yet, but it's only because I haven't been able to stop crying just thinking about the plot.
According to Bored Panda:
"The story starts off with a stray, big-eyed kitten wandering around a neighborhood to find a refuge in a cardboard box, in a back alley. He meets a pit bull there, which suffers from abuse from the hands of his stony-hearted owner. In many ways, it seems as if the animation short is trying to showcase the stereotypes that the pit bulls are facing and is trying to break them, showing that these dogs have good hearts, unlike many of their owners."
Every friend of mine who shared it on Facebook had nothing but great things to say. Yes, the words they used were few and usually followed by a combination of heart and sobbing emojis, but I'm pretty sure that means they enjoyed it.
Considering there were literal tears without pressing play, I think it's safe to say this is an easy 10 on the cry-o-meter scale. Find out for yourself now (and maybe someday I will be able to try):
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (41 min on YouTube or Animal Planet)
It was a happy accident that led me to find this adorable program. I had actually watched another movie and began a TV show to potentially recommend to you, but neither were really doing it for me.
Then, while searching YouTube for new episodes of my favorite feel-good British gardening show (because I am wild like that) I stumbled upon the title of this program.
As someone with a desire to fill my life with anything labeled "too cute," I had to hit play and hope this wasn't just hyperbole. Thankfully, this show delivered the goods, and my angry pug, Mabel Petrillo, didn't bark at the screen once — which is a feat in and of itself!
Each episode of the Too Cute! series follows three litters of different kitten breeds as they grow from 8 days old to 8 weeks old. They go from just opening their eyes to exploring the new world around them and even getting into some mischief. Some facts about the breeds are thrown in every now and then, but a lot of it is fluff — just how I like it.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (8 minutes on YouTube or stream below)
Some cat owners have made peace with the never-ending strands of cat hair floating into every pot on the stove, creeping into every closed drawer, and strewn about the car they have never been in without a carrier. Others have decided to be more productive with this nuisance of an accessory, by giving it a purpose and turning it into a craft.
"Mittens from Kittens" is a sweet 8–minute documentary about a woman with a talent for felting cat hair and spinning it into wool. For some, this artistry may seem a bit quirky — but for others, it's a beautiful way to honor beloved animal companions, and keep them close fur-ever. And for the romantics out there, there's even a love story.
Interested in getting knitty with your kitty? First, make sure you know the proper way to brush your cat. Next, check out some blogs, videos, and books dedicated to crafting with cat fur. Then, it's time to collect the fur and let your imagination go wild. And if you need more inspiration, head over to @rojiman's Instagram.
Movies, TV, and Special Programming for Wildlife & Nature People
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (53 min. on Amazon Prime)
Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I've been not so slowly becoming a birder. Sure I've always liked birds, but I never really paid close attention until I started seeing hummingbirds in our yard. They are remarkable to look at, and fascinating to interact with in person.
This documentary is exactly what you would want it to be, with a lot of interesting information, and gorgeous footage. Plus, it's narrated by David Attenborough, and you don't get much better than that.
As you can see, my cat, Mazel, loved it too. The only tears shed were over the paw prints Mazzie left on the TV.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (46 min on YouTube)
If you appreciate weirdness from the 80s and need of something quick to watch (mostly while scratching your head), look no further than this documentary from Queensland, Australia. Learn about how cane toads became beloved pets to some, and arch-nemesis to many others.
Tune in to watch one of Werner Herzog's top 8 favorite films(!!), and why one YouTube commenter was compelled to say, "Honestly, this has to be one of the most unintentionally funny documentaries I've seen. I went in expecting so little and I was thoroughly surprised. Must watch."
Warning: Cane and Bufo toads are highly poisonous to dogs and cats!
A Bioluminescence Double Feature
Here are two films that explore the magic of bioluminescence and the creatures able to light their own paths.
Both documentaries provide a fantastic scientific overview of the who, what, and whys of these amazing visual displays. We explore the deep oceans, unravel the mysteries of fireflies, and get a glimpse at some fascinating psychedelic mushrooms both above and below the soil.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (PBS or YouTube)
For those of you with children in your life (or people like me who watch almost anything in an effort to avoid the doom and gloom of the news), Nature Cat really delivers the goods. It's cute, it's educational, the humor is good for kids and adults, and it's a show that teaches its audience to be kinder and gentler to the animals and plants with whom we coexist.
I particularly liked this episode on turkey vultures, and now have a special appreciation for them:
You can find part two of this episode here, and can watch the show regularly on your local PBS station!
A Murder of Crows
Cry-O-Meter: 0 Tears | (53 min. not streaming for now as of July 30,2023, but will hopefully make a comeback 🤞🏽)
The crow population here in the Pacific Northwest is plentiful and fascinating to observe. So, it was a fun coincidence that this short documentary was mostly filmed right here at the University of Washington in Seattle.
The film follows a couple of groups of scientists as they study and track crow behaviors, observe family structures, and even give them tests.
Crows are one of the smartest animals on this planet — apparently, their brains work more like a mammal's than a bird's, even without having a neocortex, which is the thing that gives humans their cognition.
They are able to solve complex problems, recognize a single face in a large crowd (for good or for bad), and even have different dialects for speaking to their family vs. cawing out to the world.
I enjoyed this so much, I ended up buying an interactive puzzle for the crows who frequent my yard. The squirrels figured it out first, but the crows did eventually open the little compartments.
The Biggest Little Farm
Cry-O-Meter: 5 with some sobbing | (91 min. on Amazon)
The catalyst for their move was actually their rescue dog, Todd, whose nonstop barking got them evicted from the apartment they had been living in. Knowing that Todd's issues would follow him no matter where they moved, they took the extreme approach and bought a farm that they had no clue what to do with.
Watching the Chesters ask for help and learn from others was a great life lesson of its own, but my biggest takeaway from this film was how much every single animal, plant, and insect has its own job on the farm.
For every problem, there is a natural solution if you just pay attention and recognize what each living thing, from cows to maggots, was put on earth to do.
Sometimes it's necessary to be a witness to the circle of life, and this film faced all of those challenges head-on.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (51 min on Netflix)
If you look at the Netflix categorization, this film is listed as "Exciting," which may definitely be the case if you happen to be a bird and are studying up on the different mating dances of your fellow feathered friends. For the humans reading this review, however, I'd say the words cute and giggle-worthy are more accurate.
Narrated by British funnyman Stephen Fry, this short documentary is part dance and part dating competition. The male avians do their best to choreograph the most attractive moves to woo the females — only some of which impress the intended audience.
Regardless of the outcome, the attempts are beautiful and really fun to watch. This is a movie that is easy to have on in the background and also visually stunning.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (48 min. on YouTube)
Meet the ridiculously cute students at Orangutan Jungle School, a series from the Smithsonian Channel, following Borneo's makeshift homeschool for orphaned orangutans.
Even though these primates are surrounded by each other and span a variety of ages, it's up to the human "foster parents" to teach the babies how to be self-sufficient orangutans in the wild.
It's impossible to watch a documentary show like this without including the devastating truth about why a rescue like this is necessary. Still, it's a really light-hearted look that doesn't make you want to turn your head away.
Just like Pringles, once you pop, you can't stop, so I enjoyed a few heartwarming, tense, outstandingly cute episodes, and was once again blown away by the similarities our species share. I am happy to say that (so far) zero tears have been shed while watching the series.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (53 min. on Curiosity Stream)
I'm waiving my bird nerd flag high and recommending three entertainment options for my fellow avian lovers.
The first recommendation is a neat little documentary from PBS's NOVA series. Bird Brain follows different researchers as they test the problem-solving skills of parrots, geese, and jackdaws.
If you need a little pick-me-up or just want something fun to have on in the background, let me point you (and your cat) in the direction of this fantastic bird feeder live stream broadcasting from northeast Ohio!
You never know who is going to show up and the variety of beautiful winged creatures who congregate for chow time is really impressive!
If you're short on time and want instant feathered gratification check out this hour-long video of birds with the added bonus of cute squirrels enjoying a super fancy fruit and nut spread.
Cry-O-Meter: 2 | (53 minutes, on PBS Documentaries)
Meet dogs, a pig, an alligator, and other incredible animals who have beaten the odds with the help of their human guardians, and some very special doctors, and prosthetic makers.
Bring the tissues, and get ready to be inspired.
I shed about 5 plump, happy tears during this program.
Cry-O-Meter: 0 | (Season 2, on Freevee via Amazon Prime)
This show is definitely intended for children, but it's still an interesting (and silly) look into animals with their own paws, hooves, gills, and talons in the workforce.
I've only made it through two episodes so far, but it seems likely that this is a zero-tears kind of series. If you've got kids at home, this would be a fun one to enjoy together, especially since it features creatures of all different types.
Nature: Parrot Confidential
Cry-O-Meter: 7 | (53 min. currently unavailable as of July 30, 2023)
Well, there's something to be said about reading more about a movie before you watch it (look at you being smarter than me). Going into this screening, I just figured I'd be looking at a lot of really pretty, awesomely talkative birds, and learning about their habitats.
Sadly, I was in for a very important lesson about the parrot trend and what happens after many people who buy parrots realize the type of long-term care and commitment it takes to raise them.
To me, this is a really important film because it highlights an overall issue with pets who are "trending," and what is left behind when they are no longer the animal of the moment.
You better believe I cried. Polly wants a Kleenex.
I had always known beavers were adorable architects but had no idea just how amazing their engineering skills are or how much they provide to our ecosystems for other wildlife to thrive.
We learn about their family structure, incredible building skills, and how humans are learning to work with them to bring back fertile landscapes.
Leave it to Beavers is so good in fact, my wife was annoyed with how often I brought it up in casual conversation (and I barely talk to anyone, so this is really saying something). After finally getting her to sit down and watch it with me, she relented that it was, in fact, that good of a program.
I purchased it on Amazon but also found it available to stream for free on YouTube.
Other Nature Movies and TV Shows in the Queue:
My Octopus Teacher (1hr. 25 min. on Netflix)
Our Planet (49 min. on Netflix)
Cat People (series, Netflix)