We have all been amused by photos and videos of household cats being freaked out by vacuum cleaners, or at least I have. You know the ones I mean – the kind of thing in which someone decides the place is getting a bit too messy so they pull out the old Hoover and run it over the carpet only to find their cat calling 911, or trying to batter the machine to death with a hockey stick. But where does this irrational fear come from? After all, when was the last time you heard of a cat being sucked up a vacuum cleaner’s pipe? Like most intelligent people, I have long been puzzled by this phenomenon and finally, after a few too many week-old burritos, decided to pull out my set of Britannicas and do some research.
As it turns out, this apparently inexplicable fear can be explained through an ancestral memory dating back to pre-historic times when large herds of vacuum cleaners roamed dense, antediluvian forests preying on cats and other small, furry creatures. What this means is that the average modern cat does not need to have a bad experience with a vacuum cleaner to be afraid of the things. Many eons ago, his ancestors were so traumatized by rampaging vacuum cleaners that the fear etched itself on their DNA, much the same way those burritos have etched themselves on my stomach wall. Being a DNA thing, this fear gets passed down from one generation to another, leading all cats to fear a certain household appliance at a deep, primal level without really understanding why they do so. And there is no doubt that cats did, at one time, have much to fear from the now-tamed creature called the vacuum cleaner…
Several cave paintings from Lascaux, for example, show what appears to be a vacuum cleaner chasing a large cat. Either that or it’s a mammoth chasing a Buick, scientists are uncertain as to which is the correct interpretation. And there have been folk tales about cats and vacuum cleaners for thousands of years. The popular children’s tale “Puss In Boots,” for example, originally ended with Puss being turned into a set of violin strings by a vacuum cleaner which had been roaming wild in the Marquis de Carabas’ game reserve. This is why the tale was originally titled “The Pussycat’s Gizzards,” but the title was considered too grim by the guys who first wrote the story down, hence the more child-friendly title and ending.
The first written record of a case of the ages old conflict between feline and vacuum cleaner comes to us from the ancient Sumerian city of Eridu, where, according to cuneiform clay tablets dug up in 1864 by a hungry pig looking for truffles, some time during the year 2953 BCE, the city’s king, one Nangishlishma Zazu The Incorrigible, was enraged to find that his favorite cat, Pussykins, had been devoured by a vacuum cleaner which had escaped from the local zoo. According to the tablets, the bereaved monarch hunted the murderous appliance down and took his vengeance by having the vacuum cleaner drawn, quartered, and then sold off for parts.
In 1473 BCE, the Chinese historian Huan Long Dong wrote in his classic text “Chinese History for Dummies,” that the emperor Zhòng Dung had ordered all the kingdom’s cats to be locked indoors after a soothsayer told him that his enemies were planning to bankrupt China by unleashing a wave of vacuum cleaners, the idea being that with all the cats gone there would be a huge plague of mice and rats, the country’s beetroot crops would be ruined, and the kingdom bankrupted. As it turned out, the threat was an empty one and the vacuum cleaner invasion never eventuated. This fact, combined with everyone eventually remembering that China did not actually have any beetroot crops, led to Zhòng Dung becoming known as The Foolish Emperor, or more colloquially, as Zhòng Dung The Dense.
According to the Roman historian Josephus Bugiardius, another well substantiated instance of a cat being attacked by a wild vacuum cleaner took place in 273 AD, when the Emperor Adagio Albinoni’s ginger cat, Macaroni Pomodoro the Third, made the mistake of wandering out into the woods while chasing a mouse who had just insulted his mother by comparing her unfavorably to some stale cheese. According to a pair of peasants who had been sitting on a nearby fallen log discussing the geopolitical woes of the time, the mouse ran into a cave and the cat followed. A moment later, the peasants heard a bone chilling “Vroooom” sound, then heard the cat utter a loud, garbled meow resembling the words “Holy crap!” Seconds later the cat’s bloodied pelt was thrown out through the cave door, and the mouse emerged, trembling and white as a sheet. Despite attempts by psychiatrists to get the mouse to talk, all he could ever say, in his quavering mouse voice, were the words “Vroom, vroom” over and over.
In more modern times, as vacuum cleaners have been tamed and pressed into servitude, such deadly incidents have become much less common, but the eons-old animosity some times expresses itself in unexpected ways. For example, historian Hasselblad Hasselmeyer of the Harvard School of Dentistry has claimed that the infamous Deep Throat was in fact Richard Nixon’s vacuum cleaner, who had decided that the best way to mess with Nixon’s cat “Butthead” was by discrediting his master. It should be pointed out that Mr. Hasselmeyer made this claim in a book written shortly after being accidentally trepanned during a visit to the local fish markets and is therefore considered, by cynics at least, to be a person of little credibility.
So the next time your poor old pussycat freaks out and runs around the room trying desperately to escape your vacuum cleaner, don’t be an insensitive bastard and pull out your phone and then humiliate the poor creature by putting the video on YouTube. Instead, remember that it’s a deep rooted fear that is hard wired into his DNA and his subconscious, and that the furry little weirdo just can’t help it. And if you must use a vacuum cleaner, make sure you send the cat away for the weekend, or at least put him inside some sort of large, iron cage in which he will feel safe as he watches the mysterious beast rampaging through the house. Of course, you could also stop using your vacuum cleaner – what, are you too good to use a broom, now?