why is my cat so afraid of these snakes?
January 29, 2007 10:29 PM   Subscribe

FoodChainFilter: I recently agreed to take my friend's 3 ball pythons for the next 5 months and have since discovered that my cat is terrified of them.

What gives, how does the cat know that these are potential predators? Do snakes give off some sort of scent that I don't notice?

Also, is there anything I can do about the situation? I don't want my cat to be afraid of the living room for the next 5 months.

A curious note: my snake owning friend has two cats who used to sit on top of the snake cage and never seemed to care one bit about the snakes. Do I just have a higher strung cat?
posted by nerdcore to Pets & Animals (19 answers total)
Well, one of my cats is afraid of my fuzzy slippers, so you never know what can tweak an individual's fight-or-flight.

Cats adapt. Over time he'll probably get used to it.
posted by loiseau at 10:36 PM on January 29, 2007

You're wondering why your cats are so afraid of a three+ foot long snake--a predator it no doubt has never seen before? Is this a joke?

If not: google definition.
posted by dobbs at 10:43 PM on January 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Dobbs: I'll rephrase: I am not so curious as to the why so much as the how. The snakes are in a large glass aquarium, in the first ten minutes we moved them in, my cat refused to go within 3 feet of the tank. How did my cat know that the snakes were potentially hazardous when he hadn't even gotten close to them?
posted by nerdcore at 10:55 PM on January 29, 2007

Smell, I'd reckon. Snakes do have a smell, which you'll notice after a while.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:58 PM on January 29, 2007

Best answer: Hey those look like boa constrictors, but they're little. My cat is afraid of the garden hose if it whips sideways like a snake. Or anything else snakelike. I have some shed snake skins and the cat isn't even interested in those, so go figure.

But in a cage, yeah, I think it's the smell scaring the cat. You'll know in a few days whether you can make the cat comfortable in that room. (How old is the cat? Older=less malleable.) The cat may need a lot of attention and habituation and soothing to get through the beginning of this. If the cat doesn't settle down the first week, I'd say give it up.
posted by Listener at 11:18 PM on January 29, 2007

There is this African lizard that is small, red and has spikes on the back. You haver probably never even heard of this animal, but if you ever saw this animal, you will be scared. That's because it's very poisonous.

Point is, animals recognize if other animals are dangerous to them.
posted by markesh at 12:38 AM on January 30, 2007

I would say that you owe your cat a BIG apology for bringing these critters in HIS domain. I doubt that there is anything that you can do to help your cat adjust. The cat either will or will not get used to them. And I doubt taking them out to make 'nice-nice' with your cat will help. All kidding aside, I'm sure that you never gave this possibility a second thought. Nor would I. Except for the fact that just on general principles, I would be watching snakes for anyone.
posted by toucano at 1:07 AM on January 30, 2007 [2 favorites]

There is this African lizard that is small, red and has spikes on the back. You haver probably never even heard of this animal, but if you ever saw this animal, you will be scared. That's because it's very poisonous.

This is precisely why you should rely on your cognitive senses over your instinctual ones, and why humans are higher up the food chain than cats.

Because, in fact, there are no poisonous lizards in Africa. The only two poisonous lizards in the world are the Gila and the Mexican bearded, neither of which are indigenous to the entire continent of Africa.

In conclusion, what you witness here is exactly what's going on with your cats: stupidity wrapped in a blanket of instinctual paranoia stemming from a time when lizards weighed fifty tons and had teeth the size of cars, and mammals were little, scurrying fearful things.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:27 AM on January 30, 2007

Well, I don't know where you get your information from, maybe wikipedia. I have seen a red Lizard in Africa, and everybody around ran off faster than they would run from a snake. They had a local name for this lizard, and they told me it was poisonous.

I prefer to believe them that an armchair anthropologist.
posted by markesh at 3:25 AM on January 30, 2007

No guarantees that a cat will be fooled, but I've found Feliway very useful for general cat stress-reduction. Spritzing the tank with the spray version might be worth a try.
posted by kmennie at 3:33 AM on January 30, 2007

I looked around a bit, and on the internet, there seems to be no mention of red lizards, or anythng of the sort. However, I found the Red Salamander, which I think is what I saw. However, there is no record of salamanders being in West Africa, which is strange...
posted by markesh at 3:38 AM on January 30, 2007

Please put the snake cage in a separate room with a door, and keep the door shut. Having reptilian brains the size of peanuts, the snakes won't care where they are housed, and your cat will be safer.

As someone who has owned snakes in the past, I know how easy it is for them to escape, even from seemingly airtight enclosures.
posted by bchaplin at 4:41 AM on January 30, 2007

Some people believe that "[fear] responses to snakes are organized by a specifically evolved circuit that emerged with the first mammals," in other words, being afraid specifically of snakes was a very good move for some of the first mammals, and that ancient bit of evolution is still with many mammals today. From a quick look, it doesn't seem like the scientific evidence for the claim is conclusive, but it also doesn't rule out the hypothesis. Here is another story about the subject.

And, of course, there's Stephen Wright's explanation: "even snakes are afraid of snakes".
posted by louigi at 5:02 AM on January 30, 2007

"I don't want my cat to be afraid of the living room for the next 5 months."
Maybe you might have considered that before introducing strange animals, especially of another species, into its home.

"Do snakes give off some sort of scent that I don't notice?"
Cats (and dogs, and many other animals) have much more heightened senses than we do. The cat can hear you THINKING about opening a can of food. Of course it can smell snakes.

"Do I just have a higher strung cat?"
Just like people, animals have different personalities, they're not little robots which all act the same. One of my cats is terrified of any other cats except his brother, and the brother will cuddle up with any other cat.

"The snakes are in a large glass aquarium, in the first ten minutes we moved them in, my cat refused to go within 3 feet of the tank."
I assume this is the kind of glass one can see through? Heck, bring a big empty cardboard box into your living room, and some cats will be skittish of it, it's NEW and scary. When you fill that box with strange smelling animals, I'd say three feet is pretty damn close. You want the cat to cuddle up with the snakes like new best friends?
posted by jesirose at 6:43 AM on January 30, 2007

I have one cat who likes to be vaccuumed (gently), and another who is terrified of plastic bags, tinfoil, being looked at, etc. All cats have different personalities.

Second the notion of putting the snakes in a different room, if possible. If your cat starts to show signs of stress (not eating, peeing outside the litterbox, etc.), you'll have to move the snakes to a place where he can't see or smell them.
posted by rtha at 9:50 AM on January 30, 2007

The red lizard thing reminds me very much of Gerald Durrell's experience in Africa; there was a small colorful lizard which the natives called "Que-Fong-Goo" which they believed to be lethal, but Durrell, wanting some for his collection and knowing the animal was in fact harmless, gave the hunters a placebo "magic powder" to protect them from the venom, and thus managed to collect plenty of the lizards and even showed the Fon of Bafut how to pick up the 'lethal' Que-Fong-Goo.

As for your cat, she'll probably get used to it; our cats were wary of the snakes at first but gradually became accustomed to the smell, and would soon sit right on top of the cage without fear.
posted by Rubber Soul at 10:58 AM on January 30, 2007

I've always heard, so chalk it up to "family wisdom" or whatever else, that cats are naturally and instinctively afraid of snakes.

I've never actually tried exposing any of my cats to real, live snakes to see what their reaction is, but every cat I've ever met could be scared away, or at least given pause, by loudly hissing at it. (Though cats hiss at each other when angry, and not all snakes hiss, so I suppose this isn't really proof of anything.)

That said, a big ball python could probably be a match for a domestic cat in a pinch, if it managed to coil around the cat's midsection, so I think perhaps their fear is well-founded.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:42 AM on January 30, 2007

I'm pretty sure there's an instinctive feel of long, thin things that move at work here. My cat would react to garden hoses or coiled telephone cords if they moved sideways at all. She did this strange, stiff-legged, vertical and sideways hop that I never saw in another situation, and would sometimes hiss or puff up her tail.

Kadin2048, I've also heard speculation that cats evolved to mimic snakes when they're threatened--ears back to create a slim head profile, low crouch, twitching tail, and the hiss--to warn other cats not to mess with them.
posted by hippugeek at 1:21 PM on January 30, 2007

My cat was just afraid of a tiny turtle I was watching. She did loosen up after a few days and I actually found her standing on her back legs trying to get into the tank (she couldn't). However if the turtle moved quickly, she sped off to another room.
posted by jdl at 3:21 PM on January 30, 2007

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