Welcome to another installment of “Debarking Pet Myths,” our monthly series that addresses common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs, cats and their nutrition.
If you’re a cat lover who’s been on the internet in the last few years, chances are you’ve seen at least a few “cat and cucumber” videos. The typical short video shows a cat minding its own business (often while they’re eating or drinking) as someone sneaks a cucumber on the floor behind them. When the cat turns to see the green gourd, chaos ensues. The cat is so startled, you see, that sometimes he or she literally does backflips to get out of the way of the mean ol’ cucumber.
Though the vast majority of the videos are likely intended as harmless fun, intentionally scaring a pet is arguably cruel, if not potentially damaging to the frightened feline as they careen off of walls or countertops. Regardless of your thoughts on playing practical jokes on your cat, the videos are extremely popular. Cat and cucumber video searches turn up more than a million results, and the most popular “compilation” has been viewed more than 24 million times.
Lots of people, it seems, are into scared cats.
But the question remains: Why are cats so afraid of cucumbers?
The answer to that question is that cats likely aren’t afraid of actual cucumbers. Though it’s almost impossible to get inside a feline’s often inscrutable head, the consensus is that it’s not the cucumber that the cat is afraid of; it’s the sudden change in otherwise safe surroundings. Speaking to National Geographic at the height of the cucumber hijinks, animal behaviorist Jill Goldman said that “the cucumbers are triggering the cats’ natural startle responses, since they would not normally see cucumbers on the floor.”
Imagine a friend creeping up behind you and yelling. You’re not afraid of that person, but the sudden jolt can be terrifying. Same with cats and cucumbers. The cat’s outsized reaction is due to his or her instinct to get the heck out of Dodge mixed with their athletic ability to do so. Thus sudden backflips or standing leaps multiple feet in the air.
There might be an even more relatable reason cats get so spooked by the pre-pickled pepo: cats just might think it’s a snake and act accordingly. Con Slobodchikoff, author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, suggests that cats are “genetically hardwired to avoid snakes.” So imagine your reaction if you were innocently looking in the fridge and turned around to find a boa constrictor lounging on the kitchen floor. You’d leap out of your skin, too.
So no, cats are not afraid of cucumbers. In fact, in a number of the cucumber videos where the camera lingers after the fear subsides, the cat will cautiously inspect the cucumber and come to the conclusion that it’s not the threat they thought when the fight-or-flight response instinctively kicked in.
Just a reminder: You should not, under any circumstances, intentionally scare your cat or any other pet. It can cause physical harm to your pet and even to you if your pet is startled enough that they go with fight over flight. But more importantly, it can cause lingering stress in your cat. If they come to associate an otherwise safe space with danger or terror, the ensuing stress can cause all sorts of physical and emotional issues.
Plus, it’s just not right. Keep the cucumbers where they belong: In cupcakes.