Welcome to “Debarking Pet Myths,” a monthly series dedicated to addressing common myths, misconceptions and old wives’ tales about dogs and cats.
A cat has nine lives.
For three he plays,
For three he strays,
And for the last three he stays.
— Old English proverb
Most people know cats don’t really have nine lives. The multiple-lives story is an old wives’ tale that’s been around for hundreds of years. While some people believe the myth is related to cats’ acrobatic righting reflex, others think it refers to our feline friends’ uncanny ability to escape injury and death by a mere whisker.
So where did the myth about cats having nine lives come from?
No one knows for sure. Historians have traced the importance of cats and the significance of the number nine to the ancient Egyptians, who considered cats sacred. The ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet was depicted as half cat and half woman. The Egyptian god Atum (also called Atum-Ra) was thought to take the feline form when visiting the underworld. Cats that died were mourned by their families, mummified and buried in their own tombs. In 1888, a tomb containing an estimated 80,000 mummified cats was discovered at Beni Hassan in Egypt.
While ancient Egyptian culture was devoted to cats, many people of medieval Europe feared cats because they believed our feline friends were the “familiars” of witches (spirits that help witches with their magic) and “in league with the devil.” Yet cats filled a very important role for people during the Middle Ages — hunting mice in stored grains and foods.
As for the number nine, ancient Egyptian, Chinese and Greek belief systems considered nine to be a magical number. The mythological Egyptian god Atum was considered to represent nine lives — his own and the eight other original gods and goddesses of Egypt that were his descendants. Other cultures believe cats have multiple lives, but the number isn’t always nine. Some Spanish-speaking areas believe cats have seven lives, while Arabic and Turkish mythology give cats six lives.
Each cat has only one life to live, despite their amazing agility, flexibility, resilience and righting reflex. Undoubtedly that’s a relief to dogs everywhere who have ever had their beds commandeered by or been afraid to walk past the family feline — and to the chagrin of cat devotees worldwide.