Here’s the science behind the scaredy cat response.

By Corey Williams
Updated August 04, 2020
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If you’ve spent any time on the internet in the last five years, you’ve probably seen them: The hilarious viral videos of cats losing their adorable little minds when confronted with a cucumber. They started making the rounds way back in 2015, but a new one turns up every now and then to the delight of cat lovers everywhere.

Here’s what causes this over-the-top reaction in cats—and why you should never intentionally scare your furry friends:

Why Are Some Cats So Jumpy?

Credit: Pai-Shih Lee/Getty Images

Pai-Shih Lee/Getty Images

Most animals have evolved to possess a healthy fear of the unknown, but cats are naturally cautious and reactive creatures. Unlike dogs, which are pack animals, cats are lone hunters and lone eaters. This could explain why they tend to be more on-guard than other types of pets.

Now, this doesn’t mean cats should be constantly nervous and it certainly doesn’t mean they’re anti-social. Healthy domesticated cats can be quite social and, as we all know, good owners should do everything in their power to make sure their home is a relaxed, safe environment for their furry friend.

If you notice your cat is extremely skittish, a vet visit is in order. A professional may be able to pinpoint the cause of the anxiety and come up with a treatment plan on a case-by-case basis.

The Snake Connection

Credit: Image by Chris Winsor/Getty Images

Back to the evolution thing: Some experts believe cucumbers trigger a natural fear of snakes in cats.

“Cats are genetically hard-wired through instinct to avoid snakes,” Con Slobodchikoff, animal behaviorist and author of Chasing Doctor Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals, told ABC News in 2015. “Cucumbers look enough like a snake to have the cat’s instinctive fear of snakes kick in.”

It’s not just cucumbers, according to Slobodchikoff. Any snake-like object could elicit a similar response.

"If a cat sees something slithering over the ground, the cat often will jump a couple of feet up in the air, a behavior that prevents getting bitten by a snake," he explained.

Fear of Being Ambushed

That’s not the only explanation floating around the internet, though.

If you watch enough of these videos, you’ll notice the cats are never suspicious of the cucumber from the start—they don’t spot the vegetable from a distance and sneak up on it, as cats are wont to do with other things that inspire similar feelings of wariness.

The cucumbers are always placed behind the back of an unsuspecting cat, who turns around and reacts with fear.

It’s entirely possible, according to Catalogical.com, that the unexpected presence of any item could cause an identical reaction.

Remember how we talked about cats being lone hunters and eaters? Well, their independent nature necessitates a heightened sense of vigilance. Since they are both predator and prey, cats are extremely aware of their surroundings. A sudden and unanticipated change to their environment—like a magically appearing cucumber—is enough to make some kitties understandably alarmed.

But Please Don’t Scare Your Cat On Purpose

Credit: Kilito Chan/Getty Images

Kilito Chan/Getty Images

Seriously, please don’t terrorize your feline friend (no matter how adorable the resulting viral video would be).

Though the over-the-top reactions can be funny to viewers, the cats’ fear is real, unnecessary, and possibly dangerous. Stress can cause behavioral and physiological issues with kitties, especially ones that are already prone to anxiety.

If you’re lucky enough to have been chosen by a cat, don’t mess with their emotions by intentionally frightening them.