Thanks to the internet, felines around the globe seem to have found a new—and unlikely—foe: the seemingly harmless garden cucumber. You’ve likely seen viral video compilations of pet owners surprising their cats with the fruit (yes, a cucumber is technically a fruit), which include footage of frightened kitties jumping, running, or clawing at the mysterious green objects before them.
Are cats and cucumbers really mortal enemies? Did an early feline ancestor eat a bad salad, or find that cucumbers made terrible scratching posts? “No, I don’t think that cats are inherently afraid of cucumbers,” Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss.
Cats are creatures of habit, and Delgado thinks the cats in those videos—who were often ambushed from behind while bent forward eating—were simply caught off-guard while engaging in a familiar activity.
“Their eyes face forward, much like ours do,” Delgado explains. “That’s a very common structure for a face in a predator—you’re looking forward, and you’re not as worried about seeing behind you. Personally, I think that a lot of people were inadvertently startling their cats when they were already distracted. They were putting a strange object behind the cat while it was eating, the cat can’t see the object, they’re focused [on their food], and then they turn around” and see a cucumber.
The cats’ fright could be likened to how we sometimes jump or scream after we turn around and see someone standing behind us. But even though we typically laugh these moments off once the adrenaline dies down, it’s not cool to subject your cat to the same unsettling experience—especially when it’s eating.
“You want cats to feel safe when they eat,” Delgado says. “If cats don’t eat, they can become sick quite fast, and develop what’s called fatty liver disease.”
Plus, “stress can have really serious health effects on cats,” Delgado adds. “There’s been research showing that something as trivial as changing their routine can cause cats to exhibit what we call sickness behaviors: vomiting, not using their litter box, diarrhea, changes in appetite. Cats are sensitive.”
This doesn’t mean that you can’t introduce new items (say, a couch in the spot where your cat typically likes to sleep) to your household. But when you do, let Fluffy check out these unfamiliar objects on his or her own terms.
“A lot of the time people try to show a cat that something they’re afraid of isn’t scary,” Delgado says. “They’re going to inadvertently make the cat more afraid, because they’re forcing it to interact with something they’re fearful of.”
As time passes, the object will start smelling familiar, and your favorite feline will gradually relax. In the meantime, though, save the cucumbers for your salad, and keep them far away from your kitty’s food dish.