Whether they’re surreptitiously placing cucumbers behind their cats’ backs while the kitties are eating or filming their felines’ terrified reactions to Halloween props, some people apparently love scaring their furry friends.
Since many of the resulting videos go viral, people hungry for online fame have even more incentive to “prank” their cats as they chase clicks. The result is potentially thousands of house cats terrorized by people with ambitions of being the next TikTok or YouTube star.
On the surface, the way cats respond to being startled might seem comical. The term “scaredy cat” didn’t manifest out of nothingness, and cats who are truly frightened have a cartoonish way of leaping back and pumping their little legs while they’re still in the air like Looney Tunes characters.
But when you think about it from your cat’s perspective, in the context of feline evolution and psychology, the cruelty of scaring a cat for “lulz” becomes obvious.
First, cats are ambush predators. It’s why they love boxes, why they do the adorable crouch-and-butt-wiggle routine before pouncing on their toys, and why they like vantage points where they can see but not be seen.
They particularly dislike surprises, which is why they bolt. Cats are supposed to get the jump on other animals, not the other way around. The impulse to flee as quickly as possible — and return unseen — is hardwired into the feline brain, as natural to them as burying their poop or kneading when they feel content. Because domestic cats are small and can be predator and prey, that impulse is even stronger, but it also exists in 500-pound tigers or 200-pound jaguars.
So when you intentionally frighten your cat with an object that will be perceived, however briefly, as a predator, you’re triggering a fight-or-flight response, a rush of adrenaline and fear.
However, scaring a cat in its own territory (your home) or in a place he or she feels especially secure (feeding areas) adds another layer. A cat walking around outside will be naturally wary, but if you’re giving your cat a good home, as well as the love and space she deserves, she’ll feel comfortable. She’s on her home turf, in a closed environment where threats don’t pop up unexpectedly.
When a cat turns around after enjoying some yums and sees a cucumber, her hardwiring takes over, she registers the intrusive vegetable as a snake and goes into flight mode, scrambling to get away as fast as possible. It’s not just that kitty’s shocked or can get hurt scurrying away from a perceived threat, it’s also the inherent cruelty in teaching your cat that the place she thought was absolutely safe from intruders may not be.
We’re not immune to this kind of conditioning ourselves. If you settle down for a nap one day and your spouse, a sibling or a friend thinks it’s funny to wake you by dropping an ice cold bucket of water on your face, will you feel comfortable dozing off on the couch next time?
Trust is implicit in our relationships with our cats. If we abuse that trust, especially for something as meaningless as social media likes, we’re endangering our human-feline friendships and making our cats feel unsafe in their own homes.