Do cats have 9 lives?
Egyptians believed their gods shared many traits with cats: swiftness and grace, counterbalanced by aggression and violence (as they saw it). The best-known Eygptian goddess, Bastet, is depicted as a cat.
I suspect some of today’s cats would happily return to those days, if they could. There is something about a self-assured cat that can make a person wonder if cats view themselves as deities, to be worshipped and adored.
But cats are not gods. Cats, as we cat-lovers know all too well, are flesh and blood. Mortal, with but one all-too-short life to live.
So, where did the idea that cats have nine lives come from?
Cats have 9 lives, or is it 6 or 7?
We don’t know exactly when the notion that cats have more than one life came about. We think it started during the Middle Ages when superstitions about cats abounded.
The people that lived during these dark times thought that cats were connected with witches and heretics. They also believed that the devil could transform himself into a black cat.
We know what people thought about cats back then by what they wrote about them. One medieval writer, William Caxton, wrote, “the devyl playeth ofte with the synnar, lyke as the catte doth with the mous.” In other words, a cat’s special ability to catch mice was compared to the devil’s ability to catch souls.
A cat’s independent nature was cause for suspicion during a time when people believed that animals were created by God to serve and be dominated by humans. In the early fifteenth century, Edward, Duke of York, said of cats, “their falseness and malice are well known. But one thing I dare well say that if any beast has the devil’s spirit in him without doubt it is the cat.”
It’s during this superstitious time that the number nine – a mystical number in many cultures – became associated with cats. English writer William Baldwin said in his book, “Beware the Cat,” written in 1584, that “witches are allowed to possess the body of their cat nine times.” A book of proverbs published a few decades earlier included this beauty, “a woman, like a cat, has nine lives.”
Why is number 9 special?
What is so special about the number nine? The number nine holds magical or divine meanings for many cultures and in many religions. In Hindu culture, there are nine graces and nine “gifts of the spirit,” including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, and miracles. In China, nine is a lucky number associated with the birthday of the supreme god worshipped by Taoists. In Norse mythology, the universe is divided into nine worlds, all connected by a sacred tree.
But not every country agrees on the number of lives that cats get. In the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Russia, China, and France, we say that a cat has nine lives. In other countries, people refer to cats having only six or seven lives.
Number 7 is special, too
In Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece, Mexico, and Brazil (among others), cats supposedly have seven lives.
Seven, like nine, is mystical number. In the Old Testament, the world was created in seven days, and Noah returned seven days after the Flood. Egyptians mapped seven paths to heaven, and Allah created heaven and earth with seven layers. Young Buddha took seven steps, and seven deities bring good luck in Japan.
But in some cultures, cats only have 6 lives
In Turkish and Arabic countries, the number of lives that a cat gets is purportedly only six. Use them well, kitties.
Why do we say that cats have 9 lives today?
So, people in medieval times thought cats were evil or mystical, and thus attributed special powers to them, like extra lives. But why do we say that cats have nine lives today, hundreds of years later, when we know better? And why don’t we say that dogs or chickens or other animals have more than one life?
The fiction of cats having more than one life has endured thanks to cats themselves. They seem to have an uncanny ability to survive seemingly un-survivable accidents.
Cats' ability to live through disasters may be due to their unique physiology. Cats have special traits that enable them to escape danger with their lives intact. These differences allow them to emerge from situations that would be life-ending for other animals.
Cats are able to rotate their flexible spines more than most other animals. Their backbones have unusually elastic cushioning disks between each vertebra, allowing them to twist and turn and perform glorious acrobatic feats. It also allows them to right themselves quickly during a fall (more on that below).
Untethered shoulder blades
A cat’s shoulder bones are attached to the rest of his body by muscle, not bone, allowing movement in almost any direction. This kind of freedom allows a cat to squeeze in and out of tiny spaces. It also helps lengthen their running stride, contributing to their speed (up to 30 miles per hour) and ability to escape danger.
Unlike our large, attached clavicle, a cat’s collarbone is tiny and floats in the muscles of the shoulder. This anatomical difference, combined with a cats’ flexible shoulders, allows them to squeeze through openings no bigger than their heads.
Cats have an innate ability to orient themselves mid-fall in order to land on their paws and (hopefully) avoid serious injury. This special skill is instinctive and lightning-quick. When a cat is falling she'll use visual cues and the sensory system in her inner ear (called the vestibular system) to help her orient her body in space.
A flexible spine will allow a cat to bend and twist his body until he’s rotated right-side up. A falling cat can rotate himself in space up to 180 degrees in less than a second!
And it really works: In May 2021, a cat leaped from a burning building in Chicago, landed on its feet and walked away.
Nine lives for a cat that jumped from fire at 65th and Lowe. Cat hit grass bounced and walked away! pic.twitter.com/LRBsjMta2Z— Chicago Fire Media (@CFDMedia) May 13, 2021
Cats don't just seem to survive terrifying falls, however. They seem to survive all kinds of devastating accidents.
In June 2011, a house in Monson, Massachusetts collapsed after being hit by a tornado. All seven cats inside were eventually dug out of the rubble – the last one 10 days after the twister hit!
(As a heartwarming side note, even the family’s elderly, blind goldfish was found alive in two inches of water days after the event.)
Love your cats during their one life
As much as we would wish it to be true, cats don’t get nine lives. Their moments with us are short, so spend time with them, love them well, and enjoy them. However long their one life turns out to be, it will never be enough.
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Dawn LaFontaine is a lifelong animal lover who always seems to have a little pet hair in her keyboard. Her blog, Kitty Contemplations, helps cat guardians better understand and care for the special beings they share their lives and homes with. Her cat-products business, Cat in the Box, sells beautiful, well-made, and award-winning products that she designed to meet the biological needs of cats.
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