Dear Aurelia,

It’s been almost ten years since someone went viral for recording a cat freaking out about a cucumber. In that video, a human sneaked up behind a cat while it was eating. They silently placed a cucumber behind the cat. When the cat turned around, it jumped super high and ran away. Soon, lots of people were making those videos.

I asked my friend Jessica Bunch why all those cats were scared. She’s a veterinarian at Washington State University.

She told me that cats can be surprised by new things. That’s especially true if the new thing shows up without warning. Or while the cat has its guard down. Like when a cat is eating, and a human sneaks up with a cucumber.

It’s possible that the surprise sets off an internal alarm that warns cats about intruders. That instinct to startle and flee from potential danger helps cats survive in the wild. It’s an instinct that persists for house cats living cushy, non-wild lives.

“Even though we’ve domesticated them to a certain extent, cats aren’t considered 100% domesticated like dogs are,” Bunch said. “They still resemble wild cats. They still have some of the natural behaviors their wild cohorts do.”

If you’ve ever seen me pounce on a round of Cougar Gold cheese, you know that’s true.

African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica) live in Africa and Asia. Thousands of years ago, some of these cats began to live with humans. They’re the ancestors to domestic cats. © Claudia Komesu/iNaturalist

The second part of the question is whether that fear reaction is because a cucumber resembles a snake. Could it be an inherited fear of snakes that freaks out my fellow felines?

Bunch told me that cat experts aren’t sure about that. In the wild, cats are more likely to be predators than prey. Many wild cats are even apex predators. That means they don’t have natural predators in their ecosystems.

It’s true that a particularly large and bold snake might gobble up smaller cats and baby cats. But cats are just as likely to prey on snakes. Bunch said there simply isn’t enough evidence to say that this fear is about snakes.

But cat experts do agree that this trend can cause problems for cats and the humans who love them. Just like people, cats have personalities. Some cats and some people are more sensitive or anxious than others. Unfortunately, most cats can’t tell you what stresses them out.

The startle-and-flee response that looks so silly in the videos is a clue that it’s a scary experience. There are other clues that a cat feels unsafe. Like if they start hiding more or don’t want to interact with their people as much. An unsafe cat might even do things that humans hate. Like destroying your furniture or using your stuff as a litter box.

It’s pretty special that cats have lived and worked with humans for at least 10,000 years. And that our mutual respect is our bond—and not just total dependence like some other pets. It would be a cat-astrophe to break that trust over a cucumber.

Dr. Universe