A few years go the internet was flooded with viral videos of terrified cats leaping away from vegetables. Owners had discovered that if they placed produce items such as cucumbers or bananas behind their unsuspecting pets, when the cats turned around they would leap into the air or launch preemptive strikes against their imaginary attackers.
What accounts for these panicked responses to surprise cucumbers? No one knows for sure, but many believe that cats react badly to cucumbers because their shape makes them look like snakes.
Snake phobias are common in people because this fear gave our ancestors a survival advantage by reducing the risk of poisonous bites, and cats may be phobic of snakes for the same reason. According to the snake theory of feline cucumber panic, snake-shaped vegetables induce an automatic fear response due to natural selection. In other words, cats that were not afraid of poisonous snakes were more likely to die before procreating. However, some people believe that the startle response is triggered by the surprise of seeing something that shouldn’t be there rather than a specific fear of snakes, as certain cats have reacted just as fearfully to less snakelike objects such as apples (cats, understandably, don’t like anything that seems to sneak up on them). Also, cats hunt snakes in the wild, though their prey are usually smaller reptiles rather than large, poisonous snakes.
While surprise probably plays a role in the terrified responses to unexpected produce, more cats react badly to snake-shaped things than spherical objects such as apples. For example, our cats are wary of coming out on the deck if the garden hose is coiled up there.
Whether the panicked reactions are attributable to a fear of snakes or a more general fear of unexpected things, having a quickly and easily activated startle response significantly increases a cat’s likelihood of avoiding predators and territorial attackers. Because the genes of cats that react swiftly to surprising things are favored by natural selection, a sensitive startle response persists in the feline gene pool.
Many owners find it hilarious to frighten their pets with surprise objects, but this is extremely stressful for their cats, and there is a risk that they will be injured if they crash into things or land badly after leaping away from perceived threats. Cats that are frightened (particularly if this occurs on multiple occasions) may also develop generalized anxiety or associative phobias. For example, if someone scares a cat near his litter box, he may avoid it in the future and go in other areas of the house.
While many believe these vegetable pranks are harmless, the effects of pranking may be worse for cats than humans because animals can’t understand jokes, so they don’t get the relief of realizing that they are not actually in danger. Instead, they remain frightened and bewildered because humans are mocking their distress rather than comforting them for reasons they can’t understand.
Pet behaviour experts advise against scaring animals on purpose because of the potential for physical and psychological harm. Repeatedly terrorizing an animal can trigger severe ongoing stress reactions that may suppress the immune system, leading to increased risk of illness and reduced ability to recover from it. Subjecting pets to unnecessary stress can also cause behavioural problems, as anxious cats are more likely to have accidents outside the litter box or behave in a defensively aggressive manner, scratching and biting whenever they feel threatened.
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- Clark Howard, B. (2015). “People Are Scaring Their Cats with Cucumbers. They Shouldn’t.” National Geographic, NationalGeographic.com.
- Cornell Feline Health Center. (2016). “Cats and Cucumbers – Our Behavior Expert Talks About Why Cats Are Freaking Out.” Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, Vet.Cornell.edu.
- Corney, C. (n.d.). “Why Are Cats Scared of Cucumbers.” BBC Science Focus Magazine, ScienceFocus.com.
- DiNuzzo, E. (n.d.). “This Is Why Cats Are Afraid of Cucumbers.” Reader’s Digest, ReadersDigest.ca.
- Valiente, A. (2015). “Why These Scaredy Cats Are Absolutely Terrified of Cucumbers.” ABC News, ABCNews.go.com.