Over the millennia, unfounded fears and suspicions have cast felines into uncanny—and often villainous—roles. What is it about cats that provokes such an irrational response in people? From stealing the breath of newborn babies to triggering schizophrenia, let’s take a look at cat superstitions from around the world and throughout history… including superstitions that persist even today.
The black cat superstition
We might as well start with a biggie. The black cat superstition takes many forms, but at its most basic it boils down to this: Black cats are bad luck.
How did this superstition begin? As we cover in our post about black cats as Halloween symbols, it’s unclear if black cats were already well-established bad luck omens in Europe by the 13th century. But in 1233, a papal decree condemned a satanic cult that was said to worship, among other things, a devil that took the form of a diabolical black cat. This resulted in the death of millions of cats over the next 300 years.
Furthermore, in 1484, Pope Innocent VIII declared that the cat was the “devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.” In the 1500s there arose the belief that witches could shape-shift themselves into the form of black cats. This mindset crossed the Atlantic with the first American settlers and was a firmly held superstition in New England by the time of the Salem witch hunts. Puritans began the practice of burning black cats on the Shrove, or Fat Tuesday, before Lent to protect their homes from fire. Yikes!
Another black cat superstition says that black cats sink ships… but that they also protect fishermen at sea. Can’t these people make up their minds?
A modern stigma
To this day, we see the consequences of the old black cat superstition. Black cats (and black dogs) often spend a longer time in shelters waiting for adoption than do pets of other colors. The good news is, there are more black cat and black dog advocates every day. After all, pet parents know that our dark-furred friends bring only the best of luck!
Cats suck the breath of newborns
One of the strangest cat superstitions out there states that cats steal or “suck” the breath of newborn babies. Some theorize that this superstition arose out of the Hebrew story of Lilith, Adam’s first wife, who was kicked out of Eden for not submitting to her husband and doomed to walk the earth as a vampire and/or demon. It was believed that Lilith would sometimes take the form of a black cat (here we go again!) and rob the breaths of sleeping children in the night.
While we know cats are capable of no such thing, it is possible that primitive folks found cats sleeping with newborns in their cradles—cats may have been attracted to the babies’ heat or the smell of milk on their breath—and assumed the worst.
On the other hand, a different superstition states that if you put a cat in the empty cradle of newlyweds, a baby will soon arrive. Go figure…
Cats cause schizophrenia
This modern cat superstition links Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite found in some cat feces, and mental illness in humans. While it is true that pregnant women and those with lowered immune systems should not handle cat feces at the risk of contracting the parasite, this is a far cry from connecting cats and schizophrenia.
Recent studies raised alarm by finding that rodents infected with T. gondii develop bizarre behaviors. Large, correlational studies have also found a roughly 2.5-fold increase in the odds of schizophrenia diagnosis in people infected with T. gondii.
However, researchers suspect that T. gondii does not cause mental illness by itself. Instead, it “interacts with genetic variants that make some people more susceptible. This adds T. gondii to the list of environmental factors that increase schizophrenia risk by a small but measurable amount, such as prenatal infection and socioeconomic status.”
Food for thought: According to the CDC, people are more likely to get toxoplasmosis from eating raw meat or gardening than from having a cat.
Cat superstitions from around the world
Southern European vampires
In parts of Southern Europe, it is believed that if a cat jumps across a person’s grave, they’ll rise again as a vampire.
In Italy, hearing a cat sneeze means there’s money coming your way. And if a bride hears a cat sneeze on her wedding day, it means the marriage will be a good one. If a cat sneezes three times, though, you’re going to come down with a cold.
In Japan, if a cat washes his face with his paws, it means that visitors are on their way.
In the Netherlands, people try not to have important or private conversations while a cat is in the room. It’s believed the cat will spread gossip.
When people in Indonesia want it to rain, they pour water over a cat. (We can’t imagine that going over well…)
Pennsylvania German spinsters
According to a book on Pennsylvania German tradition, cats can help a woman who wants to get married. All she has to do is “feed the cat from her shoe.”
Miscellaneous cat superstitions
We’ll leave you with some final cat superstitions of note:
- Cats have nine lives.
- One white hair on a black cat is good luck.
- Kittens born in May have special powers.
- Rubbing a cat's tail on the eyelid will cure a stye. (We don’t recommend this.)
- When a cat washes its ears a lot, it will rain.
- Having a cat in a theater is good luck.
Which cat superstitions do you believe?