Scenario: you're in your living room, getting your snack on and watching Netflix, when you drop said snack, right on the carpet. You sigh the biggest sigh and crouch down to pick every little crumb out of the carpet by hand, even though you have a perfectly good, working vacuum cleaner in your hall closet.
You are doing this because:
A. You thrive on the thrill of picking shards of Doritos out of old carpet fibers.
B. You just think your fingers are better at vacuuming than a machine built to do the job.
C. You are the owner of a pet who is terrified of your vacuum and reacts like it's the apocalypse any time you run the thing, so you've just adjusted to a vacuum-less life.
The answer, for the purposes of this article at least, is C. It is one of the great paradoxes of pet ownership that having a pet means you probably need to vacuum your home more than you ever did before you had a pet (the bigs of kibble, the shed hairs, the remains of slaughtered squeaky toys—they're all embedding themselves deeper and deeper into your carpet every day you don't vacuum), but pets are notoriously terrified of the very thing created to help clean up after them.
So why are cats and dogs so often afraid of vacuums? Science may never know for sure, but here are some of the best theories.
Dogs and cats are scared of loud noises, and vacuums are loud
This is kind of an obvious one, but the main reason dogs and cats are so afraid of vacuums is probably the loud, crumb-guzzling sounds they make. This fear of loud noises isn't unique to the vacuum, of course. Dogs, for example, are famously afraid of fireworks, and cats are known to be scared of other loud noises as well. As Best Friends Animal Society explains, this is a survival instinct. In the wild, if something is making a loud sound, there's a good chance you want to stay away from it.
Dogs and cats are scared of strange objects
To a dog or a cat, in addition to be loud, vacuums look like weird, tall rolling robots. Since dogs and cats are both known to be scared of inanimate objects, it's no wonder vacuums make the list.
"As a whole, inanimate objects are not scary," Ingrid Johnson, a Georgia-based certified cat behavioral consultant at Fundamentally Feline, told petMD of cats' fears of inanimate objects in particular. But, she added, if "there's something large that was not there before and it smells funny," cats might be scared of it—at least for a while.
What to do if your dog or cat is scared of the vacuum
If you have a dog or cat who is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, you basically have three options:
1. Never vacuum your house again.
This is less than ideal, for obvious reasons.
2. Move your pet to another room when you vacuum and hope that the terror of the muffled vacuum sound doesn't trigger an accident.
Also not totally ideal, but for some fearful animals, especially cats, this might be the best option.
3. Try to condition the fear away.
This is probably the best option, because it could lead to your pet no longer being afraid of something it doesn't need to be afraid of and to you being able to clean your home without feeling like a twirly mustached, black and white cartoon villain. The process will take a lot of time and patience though and involves playing scary noises for your pet over time at louder and louder volumes until they don't act like the world is ending anymore. We have a guide for helping your dog overcome the fear here.