Whether you are a cat owner or not, you’ve probably heard the myth of cats having 9 lives. It’s a belief that goes back many centuries and across many cultures.
The question that remains on everyone’s mind; is it true? Do cats really have nine lives?
Cats do not have nine lives. They just have one like all other living beings. The myth of cats having multiple lives stems from a mixture of their remarkable biology, their abilities, and our ancestors’ desire to find explanations for what they didn’t fully understand and attribute those to sorcery or ancient myths.
Where did the myth come from?
Cats have a lot of things going in their favor when it comes to surviving. They are incredibly fast creatures (indeed, the fastest animal on land is a cheetah), they have lightning-quick reflexes, they are very flexible, and they have a large surface area relative to their weight.
The reflexes and speed allow cats to get out of some pretty hairy situations that other animals would probably have been too slow to react to, while the surface area-to-weight ratio means they can withstand longer falls than other creatures. Meanwhile, their flexible backbones allow them to withstand some injuries that would immobilize or incapacitate less flexible animals.
Additionally, cats possess impressive jumping skills, unsurpassed climbing skills, and, lastly, well-developed navigational skills.
When you put all of this together, you get an animal that is not only highly resilient to injury but also has the reflexes and speed to get itself out of seemingly impossible situations.
Another piece of the puzzle is the cat’s popularity with humans.
We have been fawning over our feline friends for centuries since the days of Ancient Egypt. Because of this, cats have spent a lot more time around humans than most other creatures in the animal kingdom.
That means that not only are cats more likely to escape seemingly certain death due to their own abilities; people are also more likely to witness them escaping seemingly certain death, which helps establish their death-defying nature in our culture.
Why nine lives?
The natural follow-up question would be, why is the myth “nine lives”? Why not four or twelve? After all, the chances of a cat being witnessed to have defied death nine times on several occasions throughout history—even as long as history is—is quite slim.
Although there is no record of the exact origin, there isn’t a definitive answer as to why a cat has nine lives. The number ‘nine’ is something of a significant number in our culture, one with a certain mystical quality. And, when you’re talking about an animal having multiple lives, there’s certainly a mystical quality to it.
This theory is backed up by the fact that other parts of the world—particularly Spanish and Arabic parts of the world— traditionally have the same myth with the number seven, not nine. This is likely just because the number seven holds the same mystical significance in those cultures as nine does for ours.
So, we can be sure that the nine lives myth has ancient origins.
What is so special about nine?
With the above in mind, why is nine so culturally significant in these cultures?
One of the earliest examples of nine being a significant number is that of the Egyptian sun god, Ra, who would take the form of the “Great Tomcat”, and –according to the legend– gave rise to eight other gods, making for a total of nine gods.
Nine lives of the Great Tomcat, one possible source of the associate between 9 and cats. That being said, it doesn’t hold much water as a direct source due to the aforementioned significance of the number seven in the Arabic-speaking world, but it is an early link between cats and nine.
In a more general sense, the number nine symbolizes divine completeness in Hinduism, and is a lucky number in Chinese culture. Greek mythology speaks of nine muses, while Norse mythology holds that the universe is divided into nine realms.
This part isn’t specific to cats, which is why it’s all the way down here, but rather it is a trait common in small mammals.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, for a creature like a cat—or a rodent of some kind—to show signs of weakness is essentially a death sentence. Hurt animals in the wild are easy pickings for predators, so it pays for those animals to not show signs of weakness.
Like many other small mammals, cats will often not show signs of injury if they can help it. Of course, if a cat has a broken leg, it can’t hide that, but things like internal injuries or illnesses are often kept under wraps.
In some cases, the injury might be fatal, and the cat will seem unharmed right up until the moment it dies. In other cases, a cat might sustain an injury that it can recover from, but the cat hides the effects of the injury and so seems fine. And, over time, it heals and is fine.
This is in stark contrast to dogs, which evolved from the much larger and more predatory wolf. Given how dangerous a wolf can be, there is less of an evolutionary imperative to hide their pain and more of a drive to attack. This is why dogs can become violent when injured.
How will I know if my cat is hurt?!
Don’t worry; I said small mammals are good at hiding their injuries and illnesses; I didn’t say it was perfect. They may be good enough to fool a predator out in the wild, but they won’t fool the average cat lover.
If you spend plenty of time with your feline friend, you will notice the subtle changes in their behavior. They may sleep more, be less sociable, exhibit a strange body position or posture, or keep skulking off to secluded spots. Other signs to look out for are changes in their appetite and bathroom habits.
Of course, if you are aware of an incident—a big fall, perhaps, or an impact with something while running—that would be a good reason to keep a close eye on your cat to see if you can spot any of these problems.
So, cats don’t have nine lives, unfortunately. It turns out they are just very good at getting out of sticky situations and very good at hiding the signs of an injury on those few occasions when they are not quite fast enough.
Don’t confuse it with luck, however. Cats get out of those situations through speed, reflexes, and heightened senses. Curiosity might kill the cat, but it has to be really fast to catch it.