12 common cat myths debunked

Think you know cats? Think again. We separate fact from fiction and debunk some of the most common moggy myths...

1. Black cats are unlucky

Black cats have been the subject of myth and folklore for centuries, and while in some countries they are considered unlucky, the felines are said to bring good fortune in other parts of the world.

In Japan, it is thought to be good luck if a black cat crosses your path, but in much of Europe and the US, the presence of a black cat is considered to mean that bad luck is on its way.

In Germany it depends which direction a black cat walks in front of you. Left to right means good times ahead, but right to left means the opposite.

Some Italians believe that if a black cat jumps on the bed next to a sick person, the person will soon die.

If a black cat appears on your doorstep in Scotland, tradition suggests you could be coming into money, while in China, some believe black cats to be bringers of poverty.

Sadly, unwanted and abandoned black cats are notoriously difficult to rehome thanks to superstition and myth so it seems they are the unlucky ones. In reality, the only supernatural powers black cats possess are ones of unconditional love and affection, just like any other cat.

2. All cats hate water

Most domestic moggies are not big fans of water, but anyone who’s ever Googled cat videos will know that not all of them hate getting wet.

Scientists think the reason most cats hate water could be because cats’ coats don’t dry very quickly, which can leave them feeling pretty uncomfortable and possibly cold. The weight of the water is also likely to weigh the usually-agile animal down, which means they can’t escape perceived danger as quickly. Another reason is that cats’ original descendants evolved in desert areas, where the land is baron and has very little rain, if any at all.

Some people spray water at cats in an attempt to get them to stop doing something. Imagine how you’d feel if someone suddenly sprayed water in your face and you should begin to understand why cats don’t like it.

If you do need to bathe your cat for medical reasons, use a little bit of positive encouragement such as a favourite treat while gently introducing them to the water.

3. Cats are unloving, if you want a loving pet get a dog

Perhaps the greatest debate of modern times is whether dogs or cats make better pets, and one argument on the side of dogs is that cats are unloving.

Domestic cats are, by their nature, more independent than domestic dogs – in part because they weren’t bred to spend a lot of time around humans, and also because the wild ancestors of our house felines don’t live naturally in the same sort of family groups that canines do.

A recent study by the University of Lincoln found that cats don’t show signs of distress when their owners leave, and aren’t particularly bothered when their owner returned to them.

But, as anyone who’s come home from a hard day’s graft to have their cat jump on to their lap for a fuss will testify, cats do show affection towards their owners and many do like to be stroked and patted.

Purring is surely evidence enough that…

4. Cats always land on their feet

More often than not, cats will land on their feet when they fall from a height. This is because they have what is called a ‘righting reflex’, whereby they’re able to twist around very quickly in the air when falling. They also have very flexible backbones, which help them in doing this.

But sadly, this isn’t always the case. Every year our animal hospitals treat cats which have fallen from great heights, often out of windows several storeys high. Some make a recovery, but devastatingly, lots don’t make it. And some of those who don’t succumb to their injuries do suffer life-changing damage that can be expensive to treat for owners without pet insurance.

We recommend keeping windows closed, and during the summer months fixing mesh to windows and balconies to prevent cats from falling out.

5. Do cats have nine lives?

Like the rest of us, cats only have one life – so where does the saying ‘cats have nine lives’ come from? Nobody really knows the origin of this myth, exactly, but there are a number of possibilities – from William Shakespeare to ancient Egypt.

In the play Romeo and Juliet, the bard refers to the nine lives of cats. Meanwhile an old proverb of unknown origin claims: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.” In ancient Egypt, cats were treated as sacred animals and were worshiped as divine creatures with psychic or supernatural powers, so some think the myth could have originated there as it fits in with their view of cats.

But, it’s more than likely that the myth has developed over time due to cats’ ability to get themselves out of sticky situations, with their agility and dexterity. Over time, moggies have survived falls from great heights and even earthquakes, so it’s not surprising they have earned their nine lives title.

6. Cats only purr when they are happy

Cats often purr when their happy, such as when they’re getting attention and fuss from you. It’s a comforting sound for you and them. But that’s not the only reason they produce this noise; they can also purr when they’re frightened or feeling unwell or in pain in order to provide comfort to themselves. Cats can also purr to comfort their young.

A cat’s purr begins in its brain. It then sends a message to the muscles in its voice box, which twitch and cause the vocal cords to separate when the cat inhales and exhales – producing the purring sound.

7. Cats can see in complete darkness?

Cats are unable to see in total darkness, any more than humans can. But they are much better adapted than us to seeing in low levels of light. Their eyes let in far more light than ours, for a number of reasons.

The corneas in a cat’s eye are much thinner than in humans and their irises (the coloured part of the eye) open far wider, both of which allows more light to enter. The retinas in the back of cats eyes also have more rods, which are responsible for magnifying light impulses. Like many animals, cats also have a highly developed reflective area in the back of their eyes – this is what makes them glow at night when caught in our headlights.

8. Cats are nocturnal

Cats are not nocturnal, but are instinctively crepuscular – which means they are most active at dawn and dusk, when hunting opportunities are rife and there’s enough light for them to see well. Just because your cat is domesticated, it doesn’t mean they will ignore this genetic predisposition, even if food is readily available. But they will usually adapt to your routine.

Cats often sleep when the house is quiet and grow more active when people arrive home. They may sleep at night, but will often still wake at least a couple of times. Steps you can take to help reverse a cat’s crepuscular tendencies include giving it a warm bed, using toys to entice curiosity during the day and playing with them yourself in the evening before you go to bed.

9. You should give your cat cows’ milk

Despite popular belief, cats do not need milk. If they are fed a balanced diet, they will get all the nutrients they need that way. Milk can upset their stomach, particularly if they are not used to it. This is because, once weaned, many cats become lactose intolerant as they lose the ability to produce the enzyme needed to properly digest it. However, if they have had cows’ milk regularly all their life, then they do retain a reasonable ability to digest it in most cases. 

Should you want to give your cat milk, it may be best to purchase a lactose-free equivalent. Although, bear in mind that any milk will contain calories and may lead them to put on weight. Kittens must drink milk in order to survive, but only their mother’s or specially-tailored formula milk purchased from a vet.

10. Cats do not like other cats

For the most part, cats prefer to be the only feline in a home. They can be social and capable of forming friendships with their own kind, but they don’t feel the need to. It can also depend on their age; cats that have lived together since birth will likely get along, although that can change over time, as it can with any siblings. In fact, feral cats tend to live in colonies, so there are lots of related females.

Cat relationships also hinge on there being plenty of resources available for them, such as food, litter trays or sleeping areas. Cats do not like sharing, or waiting for anything, so if there’s competition for resources it can cause friction. To make your home as harmonious a place as possible, provide several feeding areas, places to drink, hide and sleep and always ensure that there is more than one area to go to the toilet privately. If cats feel that there is a plentiful supply of these things, it can help prevent any problems developing. 

11. Cats are solitary animals and like to be left alone

By their nature, cats are solitary creatures. While dogs descend from wolves which live in family groups, most wild cats live alone.

However, domesticated cats can form very close bonds to people, as well as forming unlikely friendships with other animals such as dogs. Indeed, cats can come to rely on the companionship of humans and, on rare occasions, can even develop separation anxiety should the owner leave them for a long space of time, or even abandon them.

12. Will rubbing butter on a cat's paws help it find its way home?

Rubbing butter on cats’ paws is often given as advice when someone moves house and is letting their moggy outside for the first time – but this is entirely untrue, and can cause more stress for your cat. The theory behind this myth is that it removes the smell of the feline’s old environment, and allows the cat to take in its new home and get a bearing of its territory when licking off the butter. But, in reality, the smell will remain on the rest of the cat and it’s unlikely they’ll be taking in any new scents at all if it’s concentrating on licking off the butter. Instead, it could potentially make your cat even more stressed, as well as leaving greasy paw prints all over your new home.

A much better way of familiarising your cat with its new home, and making sure it returns, is to keep it indoors for two weeks so it knows that the new house is safe. It's also a good idea to start letting your cat out before feeding time and going out with them - and avoiding doing this at night. Also make sure your pet is microchipped so even if it does get lost, there’s a high chance of you being reunited with it. 

— Page last updated 2/06/2017