Unlike dogs, cats can be hard to read. That’s why people are often fascinated with their mysterious disposition. But it’s also why so many folktales that have been created to help explain them and their behaviors. Even today, there are a number of myths that are often accepted as fact. Here are a few such untruths that need to be busted.
Cats purr only when they are happy: While purring is a sign of contentment in cats, it is also a form of communication. A mother cat will purr to communicate with her kittens quietly without alerting predators. Amazingly, kittens are able to purr by the time they are 48 hours old. Cats also purr to calm themselves down. Sadly, I’ll never forget the time when I was working at the Humane Society in Detroit and a cat was purring as she was being euthanized.
Cats are nocturnal and can see in the dark: Cats are crepuscular, which means they are active primarily during twilight hours. They are most active at dusk and dawn when hunting for prey is optimal. Cats are able to see well in low light. They only need one-sixth of the light that humans do in order to decipher shapes. But it is a myth that cats can see in absolute darkness.
Cats always land on their feet: While cats have a flexible spine, which allows them to right itself, and when there is enough time, they “parachute out” in a manner similar to the flying squirrel. While cats are usually able to right themselves, they can still sustain serious injuries during falls.
Cats always wag their tail when they’re happy: Unlike dogs, cats don’t wag their tail when they’re happy. Cats will typically flick their tail when they are upset or when they’re thinking. If a cat is wagging or flicking its tail, it is probably not a good idea to pet it.
Cats hate water: While most cats dislike baths, many cats are more than eager to play with a dripping faucet. I had a cat once who would only drink water this way! There are also certain cat breeds, such as the Turkish Van, who is nicknamed the “swimming cat” for its love of all things wet. And some other cats, regardless of their breed, just have a fondness for water. I had a mixed breed cat who used to love going to the lake with me. He would lie down on our dock and let his leg and paw hang down into the water.
Pregnant women can’t live with cats: This is one myth that has caused countless cats to be given up for adoption. While the disease toxoplasmosis (which cats be a carrier for) is a risk for fetuses, a pregnant woman is more likely to catch it from handling raw meat or from gardening than from her cat. Pregnant cat owners can protect themselves by wearing gloves when cleaning the litter box or have someone else clean it. Additionally, toxoplasmosis is only a risk to a fetus if a pregnant woman’s first exposure happens during pregnancy. When I became pregnant with my first child, I was working at an animal shelter and surrounded by cats all day long. I simply took a blood test that confirmed I had previously been exposed to toxoplasmosis, so there was no risk to my unborn son.
Cats steal the breath of babies: This is a myth that my grandmother still believed after my first child was born. She told me to make sure to keep the door to my son’s room closed when he slept so our cats wouldn’t steal his breath. The fact is that cats seek out heat and comfort. Curling up next to a newborn baby meets both of these needs. If a cat happens to press up against the face of a swaddled infant who is too young to turn away on his own, his breathing could be hampered. So while it’s a good idea to keep your cat out of the baby’s room when he sleeps, it’s not because the cat is going to steal your baby’s breath.
Black cats are bad luck: Black cats weren’t always feared. In early Egyptian times, black cats were held in high esteem and to kill one was considered a crime. It wasn’t until the middle-ages in Europe that the black cat’s status started to decline as they became associated with so-called witches. Alley cats were often cared for by the poor old ladies who were later accused of witchery.
Sadly, the myth of black cats being bad luck still makes it way to animal shelters. Animal shelter employees call this phenomenon “the black animal syndrome.” People seem to pass up black animals and instead go for ones with light coats. Some shelter employees speculate that black animals just don’t have the right look to catch the eye of the public. Others hypothesize that black animals are hard to see in shelters. The more black animals waiting in cages at animal shelters, the more the problem is perpetuated. A longtime volunteer at Animal Shelter Assistance Program (ASAP) in Santa Barbara told me that when someone comes into the shelter looking for a kitten to adopt she asks about any preferences as to color, gender, etc. and often the potential adopter think a bit and responds, “Not black.”
Cat myths have existed for centuries. Some of them are innocent, but others have been downright harmful. The best thing we can do for our cats is to debunk these myths.