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There are a lot of myths involving our pets, and one of the most well-known and persistent is that cats have lives to spare—nine, to be exact. But what is the meaning behind this famous phrase? How did it start? Is there truth behind any of it? Let's break down the meaning, origin, and realities of this myth of feline near-immortality.
As with most oral storytelling, the exact origin story of cats and their nine lives is unknown. Evidence shows that the myth predates the late 1500s and possibly even has ancient origins with one going as far back as ancient Egypt, where cats were highly coveted and revered for their dual nature—graceful and gentle while also fierce and threatening to their prey. Many Egyptian gods shared these same traits and were depicted as felines, including the Egyptian goddess, Bastet, who was believed to have been able to switch between the body of a cat, implying multiple lives.
Another possibility involves Freya, the Viking goddess of love and beauty. Freya rode in a chariot drawn by “the most affectionate of all domestic animals, the cat,” and was given power over the “ninth world.” Some historians speculate this may allude to the supposed nine lives that cats are granted.
There’s also an old English proverb that states: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.”
And yet another appearance of the saying is found in William Shakespeare’s 16th-century play, Romeo and Juliet: "Good king of cats, nothing but one your nine lives."
Fast forward to today, the widely known phrase “cats always land on their feet” may play a role in the continuation of this myth. Ultimately, we may not know the exact history of the nine-lives myth, but it seems that a coupling of the captivating tales by ancient civilizations and a cat’s impressive instincts and physical abilities have led to the continuation of this old wives’ tale.
Although there may not be many people who believe the myth today, the idiom “cats have nine lives” is still commonly used and well known around the globe. This expression, passed down through the ages, highlights the awe-inspiring resilience of cats, suggesting that felines possess a remarkable gift—nine lives instead of just one. This gift of extra lives enables them to gracefully evade sticky situations and endure life-threatening accidents repeatedly and without harm.
Any cat parent will agree, cats do seem to have an uncanny capability to swiftly escape danger. They possess an almost supernatural power to jump higher than imaginable, twist their bodies mid-air, and land gracefully in a matter of seconds before continuing on, unbothered and unscathed. Their ability to survive long falls, landing on their feet with little or no damage, is legendary.
People often use this expression to describe someone who survives incredible odds or always manages to come out of tough situations without much harm.
In reality, it’s not magic or supernatural at all. Instead, it’s all thanks to a cat’s unique anatomy, evolution, and biological make-up. A cat’s impressive jumping skills are due to the muscle mass and the length of their hind legs—in fact, your cat's back legs are so strong that they can easily leap six times their height. Having evolved to live in trees, millions of years of springing or falling from a height means they’ve adapted to handle it well. Cats also have a large body surface area compared to their weight, which helps reduce the force of their landing, and the flexibility of their bones and ligaments helps them to sustain minimal injury from impacts.
Maybe most impressive is a cat’s righting reflex, an innate ability that enables felines to orient themselves even while free-falling through the air, helping them (typically) land squarely on all four feet. The balancing apparatus in their inner ear almost instantly lets them figure out which way is up and which is down, and once the head is oriented in the right direction, the rest of the body follows suit. Their unusually flexible spine and lack of collarbone allow them to twist the front and back halves of their body in different directions to right themselves, and their strong legs and back act as excellent shock absorbers.
However, cats don’t always land on their feet, and they don’t really have nine lives. They’re still normal animals susceptible to the dangers around them, and as caring pet parents, we need to help ensure their safety and well-being. If your cat lives a high-rise life, use guards around your balcony and windows to help prevent them from falling. Provide them with a cat tree or a catio where they can safely channel their leaping and climbing skills. Your cat's daredevil antics can be fun to watch but engaging them in safe play goes a long way to making your feline friend's life a happy and healthy one. And if they do fall from any height, get them checked out by a vet, even if they don’t seem hurt – injuries from falls aren’t always visible.
For centuries, our feline friends have been admired, respected, and held in the highest regard. With such history, stories and sayings from various cultures and time periods are still popular today. Here are a few more common cat myths.
Black cats are bad luck
One of the most popular myths surrounding cats is that a black cat is bad luck, particularly if one walks across a person’s path. Often connected to Halloween or witchcraft, black cats have typically been looked upon as a symbol of evil omens and misfortune. It was even believed that they were witches in disguise.
Halloween can be a dangerous time for black cats, and some shelters even stop adopting out black cats in October altogether in fear that they’ll be used as Halloween props or intentionally harmed. If you own a black cat, make sure you’re taking the proper steps to keep your pet safe this Halloween.
Sometimes the actions of our pets can seem strange, weird, or unexplainable, leading to stories and legends that have been handed down from generation to generation and spread from culture to culture. This isn’t limited to just cats though. Our canine companions are often the subject of folktale, fables, and old wives’ tales, too. Here are some well-known myths and sayings about our favorite pups.
One “dog year” is the equivalent to seven “human years”
There is a common belief that dogs age seven years for every human year. However, there is no precise formula to accurately determine how much a dog ages. Just like humans, the canine aging process can vary from dog to dog.
Nevertheless, we can provide a rough guideline: The first year of a dog's life is similar to 16 human years, while the second year equates to a 24-year-old. By the time a dog reaches 3 years old, they are comparable to a 30-year-old human. To estimate your dog's age beyond that, you can add 5 human years for each subsequent year.
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks
Dogs, regardless of their age, are perpetually eager to learn and thrive through training. The misconception probably came from individuals who encountered challenges while training older dogs who lacked prior instruction and established habits.
While it’s true that puppies are generally more receptive to training due to their lack of established habits, it’s important to recognize that older dogs are equally enthusiastic and capable of learning. These seasoned, mature pups find joy in forming a strong bond with their parents. If you take the time to patiently guide the dog's behavior, even bothersome old habits can be resolved.
Many myths about pets are just that--myths! Exploring these legends and common misconceptions allows us to separate fact from fiction. It can also be fun to know more about these tales that have been passed down for centuries, what they mean today, and how folklore has shaped our understanding of pets throughout the ages.
An ASPCA® Pet Health Insurance plan can help you with eligible costs for covered conditions like surgery expenses for accidents and help provide peace of mind that your pet can receive the care they need. Check out our online resources to learn more about your insurance options and get a free quote today. The information presented in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not constitute or substitute for the advice of your veterinarian.
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title: The Nine Lives of Cats
author: Annie T.