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Of all the cat myths and misconceptions out there, one of the most persistent is that cats have lives to spare. But do cats really have nine lives? And what is the meaning behind that famous saying? Let's break down the origins and realities of this myth.
History of the Nine Lives Legend
Do cats really have 9 lives? The short answer is no, but there's something so beguiling about a cat's demeanor that makes it seem almost possible that they could have extra lives.
Ancient Origins of a Cat's Nine Lives
The proverb that started it all states: "A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays."
As with most oral storytelling, there is no evidence of when or where this famous English quotation was first documented. However, William Shakespeare knew about the saying because he referenced it in his play Romeo and Juliet, written in the late 16th century: "Good king of cats, nothing but one your nine lives." Because of this, the myth predates the late 1500s and possibly has ancient origins.
What we do know, notes Science magazine, is that the fascination with cats dates way back to about 12,000 years ago in the homes and places of worship of the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians saw their feline friends as divine creatures with supernatural powers. Most notably, the goddess Bastet's ability to change from human to cat and back again may have promoted the idea that cats have multiple lives because she kept appearing and reappearing.
This mystical nature then seems to have followed the domestic cat during its migration from the Middle East through Greece, China and into Europe, eventually spreading into all corners of the world. By the time cats made their way to England, however, they were revered more for their ability to ward off rodents than to reincarnate. Despite their work as mousers, cats retained their air of mystique.
Why Nine Lives?
Why do they say cats have nine lives? The number nine holds significance in numerology, especially due to its composition of three groups of three, like the structure of the English proverb. Nine is also symbolic in Islamic, Greek and Roman Catholic cultures, to name a few. If a cat "comes back to life" multiple times, the number nine makes sense when looked at from a mystical point of view. Additionally, early Anglo-Saxon settlers of England (originally called Angle-lond), used the number nine in both legal and literary contexts, says Encyclopedia Britannica.
But in Spain, says Pet Plan UK, you'll hear that cats have seven lives (another number full of symbolic meaning), and Arabic and Turkish legends claim six lives. Despite the differences in the number of lives a cat supposedly has, there exists the one common underlying belief: Cats live more than one life.
Cats in Action
Despite being a myth, why do they say cats have nine lives? And why do people believe it? As any cat parent can tell you, all you have to do is observe a cat's ability to leap, twist and land on their feet to see why this myth is a lasting legend.
Cats have almost a supernatural ability to move from a low, crouching position to a high, long leap in a matter of seconds. This isn't due to magical powers: It's their biological make-up. Their impressive jumping skills are due to the muscle mass and the length of their hind legs. Your cat's back legs are so strong that they easily can leap six times their height!
No matter how spectacular their leaping skills are, keep in mind that cats are not indestructible and don't always land on their feet. Do they leap on your closet doors, cabinets or fridge? Deter them from this behavior by cat-proofing your house, such as not placing tempting items like toys, treats and catnip in high places. Your pet can and will try to get them, so best to keep them out of sight or at a low profile. Invest in a cat tree or condo as an outlet for their leaping and climbing skills.
Your cat's daredevil antics can be fun to watch, but engaging them in safe play goes a long way to making your feline friend's life a happy and healthy one.
Christine Brovelli-O'Brien, Ph.D., is a writer, STEAM educator, and long-time cat mom. She's a professional member of the Cat Writers' Association (CWA) and has written for industry-leading companies and organizations, including What to Expect When You're Expecting and NIU STEM Read. Find and follow Christine on Instagram and Twitter @brovelliobrien