Why are cats scared of cucumbers?
You’ve probably seen the videos. There are at least 29,000 out there on the web, so how could you miss them? The premise of every video is the same: a cat owner slips a cucumber behind a sleeping, eating, or otherwise unsuspecting cat. The cat discovers the cucumber, displays a remarkably dramatic startle response, and there are laughs all around. For the observing humans, that is. I’m pretty sure the cats aren’t laughing.
I’m going to post one video here, just so you know what I’m talking about. The point of the video is instructional; I do NOT want you to try this at home with your cats. More on that later.
Do cucumbers look like snakes to cats?
The thing that makes this prank “funny” for some people is that the cat is frightened by something we consider completely benign. We think, what could be so frightening about a vegetable? Look at this ridiculous cat, terrified by salad!
To explain the phenomenon, some people have proposed that this elongated and green vegetable must look like a snake to a cat. Snakes are predators, right? And a cat could be snake food in a New York minute.
The problem with this theory is that cats are generally curious about snakes, not fearful. Snakes slither and wiggle and make sudden movements. And cats LOVE all that. They’re super fun to hunt, as this funny (and slightly uncomfortable) meme implies.
Cornell Feline Health Center’s Behavior Specialist, Dr. Pamela Perry said, “Cat’s don’t have a natural fear of snakes. In fact, a lot of them hunt snakes.” She added, “I had one such cat who insisted on presenting her prey – still very much alive – at my feet!”
And the other problem is that a cucumber-sized snake would be no threat to a house cat. The kind of snake that might send shivers down a kitty spine would be some kind of constrictor that weighs at least as much as he does. In other words, snake or not, a cucumber is no threat and your cat probably knows this.
Cats are not really afraid of cucumbers
It’s not about the cucumber itself, and there’s a simple way to prove this. Katenna Jones, ScM, ACAAB, CCBC, CDBC, CPDT-KA, of Jones Animal Behavior Training in Rhode Island, conducted a not-so-scientific study with her own cat.
In this video, Jones demonstrates that her cat is not afraid of cucumbers, nor any of a variety of fruits, vegetables, or long skinny objects that she presents to her mildly curious and ever-patient study participant.
Why doesn’t Jones’ cat react the way all the other cats in cucumber videos react, performing an entire gymnastics routine in an effort to remove herself from the offending vegetable?
The difference is that Jones presents the cucumber to the cat’s front end so that she can see it coming. She does not slip the cucumber behind the cat when she’s not looking.
Jones explained: “I wanted to make the point that it wasn’t cucumbers, or even their shape, but rather the unexpected appearance. I let the cat see the object coming, and placed it a small distance [away] so the cat could choose to approach, ignore, or retreat.”
This is an experiment you can safely try with your own cat. Remember to allow your cat to see you approaching with the cucumber and give him enough room to escape if he wishes to.
Cats aren’t afraid of cucumbers but they don’t like being surprised
We humans get a little thrill out of the startle response. Many of us love a scary movie, or would pay good money to enter a haunted house attraction. When something startles us – a sudden loud noise or movement, or an unexpected touch, the event unleashes a flood of powerful hormones in our bodies and triggers an automatic, involuntary “fight-or-flight” response. Some people enjoy a “good" scare because it produces a rush of biochemicals including adrenaline, endorphins, and dopamine, all of which can produce a sense of euphoria.
But your cat isn’t in on the cucumber prank. Your cat is in her home, a place where she is supposed to feel protected and secure. She expects to be able nap safely and relax over a nice meal. Her home environment has always been unthreatening and predictable.
But this time, as she turns around to go about her business, she confronts an unexpected object, one that was not there just a moment ago. Her involuntary startle response kicks in.
A cucumber is not the only thing that will startle a cat, of course. A sudden noise, for example, like a thunderclap, a backfiring car, will do it. The fear response can help protect a cat from threats, when they are real. But the cucumber prank produces a fear response without the commensurate benefit of protecting the cat from harm.
What’s so terrible about a little fear? Studies have shown that even a single fear-inducing event can cause long-lasting fear. Fear becomes encoded in the amygdala in the brain.
Fear that gets stuck in the brain doesn’t necessarily stop with that one particular association, in this case, cucumbers in whatever room of the house your cat confronted a cucumber. It can start spreading to other objects and places. Fears can become phobias and it can take months or even years to desensitize a fearful cat.
Certain cats are more prone to fearfulness than others. Play the cucumber prank on the wrong cat, and you could end up with a reactive cat that can become difficult to handle.
But most important thing to note is that fear doesn’t feel good to your cat. It’s not a joke to them, and they don’t share our sense of humor. “The fact that the cucumbers are often placed near feeding stations in the videos confuses the cats because they often associate those areas with safety and security,” Behaviorist Pam Johnson-Bennett told National Geographic. “That’s a cruel thing to do.”
So enjoy your cat, laugh at her antics (so long as it’s not at her expense), and play with her to your heart’s content.
But for goodness’ sake, put away the vegetables.
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 “Cats and Cucumbers - Our Behavior Expert Talks About Why Cats Are Freaking Out: Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.” College of Veterinary Medicine, www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/about-center/fhc-updates/cats-and-cucumbers-our-behavior-expert-talks-about-why-cats-are-freaking-out.
 Holland, Jennifer S. “Pictures: How a Python Can Swallow a Crocodile.” National Geographic, 3 Mar. 2014, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/3/140303-python-crocodile-australia/.
 Hecht, Julie. “Where to Fall on the Cats vs. Cucumbers Debate.” Scientific American Blog Network, Scientific American, 19 Nov. 2015, blogs.scientificamerican.com/dog-spies/where-to-fall-on-the-cats-vs-cucumbers-debate/.
 Dickerson, Kelly. “Here's What Happens to Your Body When Something Terrifies You.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 30 Oct. 2015, www.businessinsider.com/what-happens-when-you-are-scared-2015-10.
 Dwyer, Christopher. “5 Reasons We Enjoy Being Scared.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 19 Oct. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thoughts-thinking/201810/5-reasons-we-enjoy-being-scared.
 “Pavlovian Fear Conditioning.” Pavlovian Fear Conditioning - an Overview | ScienceDirect Topics, www.sciencedirect.com/topics/psychology/pavlovian-fear-conditioning.
 Howard, Brian Clark. “People Are Scaring Their Cats with Cucumbers. They Shouldn't.” National Geographic, 4 Dec. 2015, www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2015/11/151117-cats-cucumbers-videos-behavior/.