Perhaps you’ve seen the cat videos that swept the Internet last week. You know the ones — where people sneak up and place a cucumber on the ground behind a cat blissfully eating its food. After a moment, the cat invariably turns around, sees the cucumber, and jumps several feet into the air before sprinting out of the room as if being chased by a ghost. These clips had everyone asking, “What is it with cats and cucumbers?” but I’m asking a different question right now, and I’m asking it of my fellow veterinarians.
A day or two after the videos went viral, they were followed by a flood of articles by veterinarians and behaviorists condemning them. There were lots of valid and interesting reasons given, and most of them boiled down to: Some cats are really terrified when they see a cucumber. Don’t terrify your cat. Unfortunately, I’m worried a lot of folks missed that message because of the tone in which it was delivered.
Here’s what I mean. Ideally, episodes like this should play out like so:
- 1 – People take pictures or videos of pets doing something they consider entertaining (i.e. wearing costumes, sporting extreme grooming looks with hair dye, serving as a jungle gym for small children, etc). An Internet trend is born.
- 2 – Veterinarians see the growing trend and say,”Whoa. There are risks here that are not being considered. Let’s talk about this.”
- 3 – Veterinarians and pet owners have productive conversations about what’s going on and what the problems might be. Then we can all safely enjoy our pets thanks to the knowledge everyone has gained from the conversation.
Now, that’s what should happen. But it rarely does. Here’s what often happens instead:
1 – People take pictures or videos of pets doing something they consider entertaining.
2 – Veterinarians see the growing trend and get upset. Many may react immediately, yelling, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! THAT’S APPALLING! IF YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY, YOU’RE SICK!
3 – The yelling people shame the video-making people, who then quietly decide veterinarians are kind of mean and, probably, not a very good source of information anyway.
If you don’t believe me, pull up a few articles about why you shouldn’t scare cats with cucumbers and read them. How many gave off a “I get it, but let’s talk about things we should all be aware of” vibe versus a “You are a terrible person if you smiled at these videos before reading this article” vibe?
Guys, this is a real problem. We wouldn’t talk to our friends like this, so why would we talk to pet owners this way? If your elderly neighbor showed you a video with a cat sprinting away from a cucumber because she thought it was funny, would you berate her and question her humanity? I hope not. I hope you would smile and then talk patiently about why this isn’t what she thinks it is. Then maybe you’d invite her to watch Wheel of Fortune at your house. She’d probably like that.
Please know I am not downplaying the importance of educating pet owners when trends like this arise. It’s good that we feel the need to correct misinformation and that we feel passionate about it. But if we are going to be effective educators for the long term, pet owners can’t think of us as screeching meanies. How we deliver educational messages — in person or online — is critical to our success or failure.
So, let’s not bash the people we’re trying to help. Instead, let’s assume the best about people and be kind and gentle in showing them the truth behind rumors, memes, and other strange Internet finds. That way, they’ll associate veterinarians with the joy of having healthy pets instead of the shame of being scolded. We catch more flies with honey than with vinegar (or cucumbers).