Cats are mysterious, inscrutable creatures, sometimes sacred animals, sometimes witches’ familiars.
Compiled and Edited by Cliff Sawit
It’s no wonder then that we humans have accumulated many myths about our feline friends, perhaps in an effort to explain their sometimes bizarre behavior. But which ones are true and which ones are simply old wives’ tales? Let’s take a closer look at our domestic companion and separate furry fact from fiction!
1.) CATS HAVE NINE LIVES – We’ve all seen or heard about feline brushes with death that leave them completely unscathed, like falling from great heights, going a long time without food, or narrowly avoiding incoming traffic. This seems to lend some credence to this myth, which appears to have started in ancient Egypt, where the Ennead, or the nine gods, sometimes assumed the form of a cat while entering the underworld.
But cats are simply nimble creatures who can react quickly to dangerous situations in order to preserve the one life that they actually have. Cat owners should make sure that their pets get regular vet checkups and have a safe home environment away from high falls and other hazards. Don’t leave your cat’s safety in the hands of myth!
2. CATS ALWAYS LAND ON THEIR FEET – Speaking of high falls, we’ve all heard of someone described as being like a cat, always landing on their feet after a fall. Cats have a righting reflex that allow them to reorient themselves in the air as they fall, using their unusually flexible backbones and their lack of collarbones.
Contrary to popular belief, even tailless cats have this reflex, and the tail is more of a counter-weight for when the cat is running, jumping, or turning at high speed, and is not a deciding factor in its ability to land on its feet.
That being said, cats do need at least 12 inches of height in order to perform this maneuver. Any less and there simply isn’t enough time during the actual fall for the cat to right itself. Also, cats can still break bones or even die from extreme falls, so condo and high-rise dwellers who own cats, make sure your cat doesn’t nap on the edge of your balcony!
3.) CATS STEAL THE BREATH FROM BABIES – Here’s a strange one: According to one myth, cats have the mystical ability to suck the breath out of babies’ mouths while they are sleeping.
Some people say it’s because cats can smell milk on the breath of babies and just can’t help themselves, while others think cats are jealous of all the attention babies get from other humans. This isn’t a new myth, and has been quoted in print since 1607. One jury at a coroner’s inquest in England found a cat guilty of stealing a baby’s breath, probably influenced by this superstition.
A doctor in Nebraska was quoted in 1929 as having seen “the family pet in the very act of sucking a child’s breath, lying on the baby’s breast, a paw on either side of the babe’s mouth, the cat’s lips pressing those of the child, and the infant’s face pale as that of a corpse, its lips with the blueness of death.” Yikes.
The doctor’s unconfirmed ranting toward the local newspaper aside, while cats have been known to curl up next to a baby while it’s sleeping, this is because cats like heat and comfort, not because they’re stealing the baby’s life essence through magic. However, there is a fear that if the cat lies across the face of a sleeping baby it might smother the child.
In 2000 a woman reported that she found her six-week-old son dead with their cat laying on its face. However, further examination showed that SIDS, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, not the family cat, was the cause of death.
Still, cats should be supervised when they are around babies, and should be put out of the crib whenever the baby is sleeping. In fact pediatricians recommend that the crib of a sleeping infant be clear of anything else, whether it’s toys, pillows, or, yes, cats.
4. DON’T LET A BLACK CAT CROSS YOUR PATH – Everyone’s heard this one: It’s bad luck to let a black cat cross your path. Gamblers in particular avoid black cats on their way to the casino. But why? And why black cats in particular?
Black cats weren’t always seen as harbingers of doom. In the famously cat-revering culture of ancient Egypt, black cats were associated with the goddess Bast, who ruled not only cats but also fire, the home, and pregnant women.
Charles I, the ill-fated 17th century King of England, had a black cat. When his beloved pet died, he declared that his luck was gone. The next day, he was arrested, charged with treason, and later executed.
So what was the PR disaster that turned public opinion against black cats? It was being associated with witches during the Middle Ages. The onset of the Black Death, the plague that killed millions of people across Europe, drove the local populations of cities and towns to blame outsiders, particularly those who did not practice the Christian faith, such as Jews and pagans.
Soon, rumors of devil worship spread like the plague itself, and everything associated with witches gained a bad reputation, even all the way to America, with its famous Salem witch hunts. This meant that lonely old ladies who took care of neglected alley cats in cramped medieval towns and cities were often seen as witches, and their feline charges as their demonic familiars. But that’s just the way superstition works, isn’t it?
Nonetheless, cultures across time viewed the black cat as a symbol of good luck. For instance, a strange black cat’s arrival at a Scottish home signifies prosperity. Black cats are also considered lucky in Japan, particularly for single women. A black cat is believed to bring a woman many suitors. Maybe they’re there to visit the cat?
It gets even more complicated in Germany: if a cat crosses from right to left, it’s a bad omen, but if it’s from left to right, it’s a good omen.
They neglect to mention what kind of luck you get when you see a cat sitting in the middle of your driveway refusing to move, though!
This story appeared in Animal Scene’s March 2015 issue.