Why do we say that cats have nine lives?
Martin Fone set out to investigate the origins of the saying that cats have nine lives. In the process, he discovered something less supernatural, but no less incredible.
“A cat has nine lives”, says the proverb, “for three it plays, for three it wanders and for the last three it stays”. In Shakespeare Romeo and Juliet (Act 3:1), Mercutio goads Tybalt, whom he once called a rat-trap, by demanding: ‘Good king of the cats, only one of your nine lives, which I want to make bold with, and, as you’ll use me hereafter, beat dry the rest of the eight’. Thomas Fuller asserts in Gnomology: Adagies and Proverbs (1732) that “a cat has nine lives, and a woman has nine cat lives”. Cats with nine lives are well established in English folklore, but why?
One theory is that this association originated in ancient Egypt where cats were worshiped as divine creatures with psychic or supernatural powers. Atum-Ra, a sun god, who took on a feline form when he visited the underworld, gave birth to four gods who, in turn, produced four others, known collectively as the Ennead . The Egyptians considered Atum-Ra, the cat god, to be the embodiment of nine lives in one form.
Elsewhere, the number nine is considered to be imbued with special meaning, the trinity of trinities and the final number. In China, it is considered a lucky number, while numerologists associate it with forgiveness, compassion and success. The belief that cats have nine lives is not universal, however. In some Spanish-speaking countries they have seven while in Turkish and Arabic folklore they are even more prejudiced, with only six.
“One in New York fell from a window on the thirty-second floor of a building… After two days in an animal hospital, he was well enough to go home”
In truth, even the most ardent ailurophiles will concede that they only have one life, but is there a trait in a cat’s behavior that leads to the belief that it defies death?
Well yes. They have a remarkable propensity to fall from heights and land on their feet, seemingly unscathed, which hasn’t always worked in their favor.
The Kattenstoet takes place in Ypres in Belgium, on the second Sunday of each May, a parade commemorating the custom, dating from the Middle Ages, of throwing cats from the seventy-meter high bell tower of the Cloth Hall to the square of the city below. Once again, the origin of this curious ritual is lost in the mists of time, but the cats were used to protect the wool which was stored there from the predations of vermin during the winter. Once spring came, wool was sold, it was superfluous, and ungrateful merchants simply threw it out the window.
And it looks like the cats survived. In 1817, after the defenestration of a living cat, the guardian of the town remarked that “despite the height of the fall, the animal fled quickly never to be caught again during such a ceremony”. You’ll be happy to know that’s the last time a real cat was used. puppets are used in modern ceremony.
A cat’s exact ability to survive a fall from a height was discovered in 1894, thanks to the pioneering use of a chronophotographic camera by French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey. He used the camera, which had a shutter speed of sixty frames per second, to capture what happened when he held his cat upside down and dropped it. What he saw was that he was twisting and maneuvering his head, back, legs, and tail into an upright position to soften the impact when he struck. land.
What Marey had captured was her cat using her highly advanced vestibular system located in her inner ear which controls balance and orientation. It triggers the righting reflex, allowing it to quickly assess upward direction and adjust its body mid-flight. Kittens begin to demonstrate the ability to right themselves after just three weeks, and by seven weeks their righting reflex is fully functional.
The cat, however, has other intrinsic advantages. As arboreal hunters, they developed very muscular angular legs, ideal for climbing, jumping and absorbing the impact of landing, and a skeletal system, which included thirty vertebrae and no collarbones, which made their spine incredibly flexible. , reducing the risk of damage to their bones in the event of a fall. Relative to their surface, their body weight is low, a factor that helps reduce the rate at which they descend, giving more time for the righting reflex to kick in.
A cat’s ability to survive a prodigious fall is well documented. One in New York fell from a window on the thirty-second floor of a building, with a chipped tooth and a collapsed lung. After two days in an animal hospital, he was well enough to go home. More surprisingly, a cat fell 46 floors without hurting itself, winning a rather dubious world record, although pedants point out that a glass roof partly cushioned its fall.
You will not be surprised to learn, in the age of the smartphone, that similar falls – although not from such a height – have been filmed. A cat ; screams of horror can be heard from the crowd, but the brave moggie lands safely on a grassy edge and escapes unscathed.
These amazing feats of survival led to speculation as to whether cats were uniquely adapted to survive long falls. The water for this mill was provided by research published on Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1987 who examined 132 cats that had fallen from buildings and were brought to the New York Animal Medical Center. The study found that on average they fell the equivalent of 5.5 floors, the furthest being 32, and although two-thirds required some form of medical intervention and half between them died without treatment, their survival rate was about 90%.
Perhaps most intriguing of all, researchers have found that after a certain point, falling more actually increases the cat’s chances of survival. While initially cat injuries increased with height of fall, there was a tipping point at a fall of approximately seven stories. After that, the number of injuries actually went down.
“Cats have a relatively low terminal velocity of 60 mph, which they reach around the five-story mark… After that, they have time to adopt a more relaxed body state, using it more as a parachute”
Researchers have offered an explanation. When cats begin to fall, they tense and arch their backs and rely on their physiological advantages to survive. This proves an admirable strategy for falls of short distance, but less so for falls that are longer but not long enough for the cat to reach terminal velocity, the point where its velocity while falling remains constant.
Cats have a relatively low terminal velocity of 60 mph, about half that of humans, which they reach when falling about five stories high. Up to this point, the injuries increase in severity, but then they have time to adopt a more relaxed body state, using it more like a parachute, and thus minimize their injuries.
The flaw in their research, however, was that the sample was significantly biased toward cats that initially, if not ultimately, survived their falls. After all, owners wouldn’t take their cats to a vet’s office if they were killed on the spot. Further doubts were cast on the results of a study of 119 cats that had fallen from at least four floors, published in October 2004 in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. One of its key findings was that “falls from the seventh floor or above are associated with more severe injuries and a higher incidence of chest trauma.”
Either way, it’s still pretty incredible that survival is even a vague possibility of such huge falls; cats are naturally adapted to survive relatively unscathed the kind of falls that, to the human eye, would appear to be fatal. No wonder as they domesticated it led to the belief that they led one or more charmed lives. Unfortunately, they are like us: mortal.
Credit: Getty Images/EyeEm
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