It appears some cats have had it up to here with cucumbers.
In the latest viral video, Cats VS Cucumbers, cats fly away (literally) from cucumbers, yes cucumbers, that have been placed behind the cats without their knowledge.
Watching this video you might ask the glaring question "What's with cats and cucumbers? Are cucumbers intrinsically scary to cats?" Others are asking whether this is harmless fun or pointless cruelty. What follows is a nuanced look at the latest cat cucumber craze.
Katenna Jones, ScM, ACAAB, CCBC, CDBC, CPDT-KA, of Jones Animal Behavior Training in Rhode Island (@JonesAnimalBeh) shows it's not so much about the cucumber itself, but about how the cucumber is presented. Present a cucumber — or any other fruit, vegetable, or long, skinny object — to the front of a cat, and you get a very different response. See for yourself.
Jones explains her approach: "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 so the cat could choose to approach, ignore, or retreat."
There you have it: the cucumber, unto itself, does not hold some otherworldly, fear-inducing power over cats. Cats do not have a longstanding history of being tormented by cucumbers. If asked, cats would not take up arms against cucumbers.
On the other hand, presenting anything behind a relaxed, unsuspecting cat can produce a startle response. While it's possible cats might show what some consider an exaggerated response because of the cucumber’s somewhat snake-like features, cats don't have a one-sided relationship with snakes and have been found to prey on them.
Jones adds that the cats who react, tend to react similarly: "They are not hissing or growling. I feel like it's similar to when you step on a stick in the woods, and it makes you jump because you think it's a snake. Or, if someone throws a rubber snake at you when you're not looking. The reaction is so fast, it's a hard-wired escape."
The bottom line is, cucumber or no cucumber, many cats will startle in response to any type of novel object placed unexpectedly behind them, particularly if they are intensely doing something else, like eating.
I'm not going to pretend to have no idea why people are both fascinated and entertained by these videos. As one close friend explained, "I had no idea cats could jump like that or move so fast." Seeing an animal do something new or novel can be entertaining. Not to mention, the cat's startle response is way more acrobatic than our human-version.
Humans are big supporters of the startle response. We like to scare ourselves (think haunted houses) just as much as we like to spook others (think America’s Funniest Home Videos). On her much-loved show, Ellen Degeneres takes much care to scare guests early and often, much to viewer amusement. We enjoy seeing a composed Jake Gyllenhal become wide-eyed with mouth agape or Taylor Swift falling to the floor after being snuck up on in the bathroom. Many humans request, “more startling please.”
And the fact that cats can be startled by, uhm, a cucumber? The dissonance between what we know about cucumbers (a benign vegetable-like-fruit that's mostly water) paired with the cat's seemingly over-the-top response to a harmless food item has all the makings for laugh-out-loud entertainment.
Entertainment at a cost
This wouldn't be a problem if Saturday morning cartoon cats were flying high from a cucumber sneaking up on them, but putting cucumbers, or other random objects, behind an unsuspecting companion cat can be bad for you and bad for your cat. I would not "try it at home," as unfortunately suggested by IFL. To see why, let's first get acquainted with the cat's side of the story.
You're a companion cat.
You're hanging out at home where you know every inch of the place. You’ve got your spots for sleeping, perching, and scratching. There are paper bags and boxes for hiding and chilling, and a spot to chow down. It’s your home, and you know what's what.
Hey. It's feeding time. You've planted yourself in your good ol' ho hum feeding spot. Nothing new to report. (This might not seem obvious, but you're relaxed. Animals don't tend to eat when they're stressed or anxious, so chowing down is an indicator that things are generally hunky dory).
Someone walks behind you and moves along. One of the humans. Nothing to report there. That's normal. You keep eating.
You take a break from eating and turn to go on your merry way — maybe to curl up for a snooze, use the restroom, or take a lap around the house — but, what's this? Something new is Right There on your very same level! It's out of the ordinary, and wildly unexpected. It literally appeared out of nowhere. WHAT THE #$&!*#!!
Yes, cats can startle for totally un-manipulated reasons like a human’s loud, humorous fart, a car backfiring, or lightening sounding off, but cat startling is not to be sought out. Years of psychology studies find that fear cannot easily be controlled, and it can quickly take on a life of its own. Startling a cat can have unintended consequences.
To get a real-world take on fear in cats, I checked in with Mikel Delgado, a PhD candidate in Psychology at University of California, Berkeley and a long-time certified cat behavior consultant (follow her blog Cats and Squirrels and Other Important Things… and on Twitter at @mikel_maria).
Delgado agrees, "there is much research behind one-trial fear conditioning” — that is, developing a lasting fearful association after being exposed to something a single time. "Fear can be quickly encoded in the amygdala — the part of the brain that helps to respond to threat. Fear is adaptive because it protects us from threats... which also makes it harder to unlearn." Bringing it back to humans, Delgado offers, "How many times do you need to see a cockroach run across the dining table at a restaurant before you decide to avoid that restaurant?"
Another problem with fear is that it doesn't stay in one place. "Fears can generalize to other objects or places," Delgado explains. "One thing many people have mentioned is that cats should feel safe when they eat. Fears can become phobias — which we know in humans can take lots of time and systematic desensitization to get over."
Jones adds, "Cats don't understand it's a joke, they don't get humour. They just know fear and distrust. I feel it's like living in an unsafe place. You don't know when something will come after you so you're on edge, always alert, never fully relaxed."
Unfortunately, Delgado and others working with cats and their owners often encounter cats with fear-related issues. "A recent client had a cat who developed an extreme fear after being startled during a thunderstorm. The client was unable to touch the cat without the cat defecating from fear — for weeks. I had other clients in Brooklyn whose cats started fighting during 'Superstorm Sandy.’ It took several months to get the cats to get along again."
Finally, fear doesn't feel good. My go-to resource, the Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour & Welfare, describes fear as “an emotional reaction, induced by the perception of stimuli associated with danger, which leads to protective defensive reactions.” It goes on to say that, among other things, fear-inducing stimuli may include novelty. Hello cucumber.
Individual differences are likely why some cats run for the hills while others mosey on past the infamous cucumber. "Some cats appear to be more prone to fearfulness or shyness than others," explains Delgado. "These cats may need minimal 'provocation' to be sent into a fearful state (i.e., cross their threshold). Fearful cats can also stay 'reactive' for long periods of time which can make them dangerous to handle.”
I don’t expect companion cats to live an entirely fear or stress-free life, but it also seems unnecessary to go out of one’s way to scare a feline member of the household. Some of my favorite YouTube videos feature animals that have learned to love, not fear, historically scary objects like the infamous vacuum cleaner.
When writer and trainer Eileen Anderson (@eileenanddogs) turns on the vacuum cleaner, her dogs come running because to them it signals treat-time. See how this came about here. It warms my heart to see companion animals happily running toward something traditionally scary.
And here's Bobo the cat, loving the vacuum cleaner.
If you find Cats vs Cucumbers entertaining, you’re not alone, but for the sake of your cat, put the cucumber down.
Image: Max Nathan cucumber slumber, Flickr creative commons.