An illustrated cat speaks from a rooftop.

The Truth About Black Cats

By Ginny A. Roth ~

In a dentist's office, a cat sitting on a stool is holding the tooth it has just extracted from a dog sitting in the dental chair. Dental drill and water fountain are to the left.
In a dentist’s office, a cat sitting on a stool is holding the tooth it has just extracted from a dog sitting in the dental chair, O.Elkan, ca. 1945. National Library of Medicine #101393569

“Who comes to disturb me at night?!” says the black cat from the roof of the house. How ominous. But in the mixed media drawings above, we discover later in the series the black cat is a refuge, not a threat. The cat is a healer, who extracts the bad tooth of a canine patient, and who offers sound advice, “de bons soinsauraient évité cette pénible opération (good care would have avoided this painful operation).”

And this is the paradox of the black cat; an evil doer associated with Satanic rituals, or a majestic, healing totem to be revered and worshiped?

Superstitions about black cats are common even today and are reinforced especially during Halloween. For instance, folklore tells us that if a black cat crosses your path, bad luck is sure to follow.  In 16th-century Italy, people believed that if someone was sick, he or she would die if a black cat lay on their bed.  The Normans and Germanic people believed that, like the black raven, a black cat was a sign that a death would soon occur.

The superstitions surrounding black cats have affected them so negatively that these cats have some of the lowest adoption rates and the highest euthanasia rates out of all cats in American shelters.  According to the Smithsonian, some adoption agencies and shelters won’t even consider finding a “forever home” for a black cat until after Halloween for fear that they will be tortured or sacrificed. This fear arises more from the existence of cruel people than statistical evidence that such events are taking place, but it is enough to keep black cat adoptions on hold until after the holiday.

So, why are black cats considered bad luck? The connection began during the Middle Ages when people became sick and died without understanding the scientific truths of their illnesses. These occurrences often had people looking for something or someone (maybe witches?) to blame for their sicknesses. The mysterious nature of the black cat made them a target, more so than other cats because they blend with shadows and appear “spooky”. They were quickly associated with the devil, witches, witchcraft, and evil, other sources of ill health and misery.  Some believed that the devil sent black cats to assist witches with their evil deeds and practice of magic, and that witches could shape-shift into cat-form so they could slink around in the shadows casting spells on unsuspecting people.

One of the illnesses that brought so much fear to those living in the Middle Ages was the Bubonic Plague, also referred to as the Black Death.  The plague was caused by a bacteria spread by rats. Many cats were likely infected as their prey spread the disease, and in fact, the cats could also spread the plague to humans, adding fuel to the animosity against them.  The rat population likely surged as their predator, the cat, was eliminated by the disease and by superstition.

The fear of black cats traveled to the United States with the Puritans, who were on guard against all things of the devil, including witches and their counterparts—black cats. Over time, superstitions about black cats became embedded in American folklore. The myths traveled the world and spread fear, literally leading to the demise of thousands of black cats who suffered during unconscionable mass killings.

Perhaps it’s time we learn, or remember, that in ancient Egypt, no animal was held in as high esteem as the cat.  Yes…including black cats. A symbiotic relationship grew between cats and Egyptians; Egyptians used the cats to eradicate infestations of rats and mice, and cats needed food and the protection from larger predators. Eventually, cats were welcomed indoors and moved in with their human companions,  and bred in the safety of a person’s home. Cats became esteemed by Egyptians for being playful and affectionate companions, and also skillful predators.

The Egyptian goddess Bastet personified the playfulness, grace, affection, and cunning of a cat as well as the power of a lioness. She was commonly depicted as a black cat or having the head of a black cat with a woman’s body. During the height her popularity, killing a cat, even accidentally, was punishable by death.  After death, cats were sometimes mummified in the same manner as humans were, and even buried with them.

A dog rings the bell at a cat's dental office, a cat answers from the roof of the building.
Dog with a toothache, ca. 1945
National Library of Medicine #101393570

There are good black cat superstitions scattered throughout the world. For example, in England a black cat on a ship could be considered lucky, if a black cat walked on and stayed on the ship, it meant good luck, but if a black cat walked on and then off again, this was a bad sign that the ship would sink. In Japan it is believed that black cats can bring prosperity, bless a marriage, ensure good harvests, and even help bring success to a theater production.

Some artists are particularly fond of incorporating black cats in their exhibitions because of their cultural appeal and the intense emotional reactions they are capable of bringing forth.

Black cats do not cause bad luck, they are not signs of the devil and they most certainly do not deserve to be greeted with derision by humans.  In reality, the more you love your black cat, or any cat, the greater the health benefits are to you.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, research has shown that cats provide emotional support, improve moods, and contribute to the overall morale of their owners. They can decrease blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and eliminate feelings of loneliness.

According to Psychology Today,

…a major reason we love cats is because of an uncanny ability that few humans possess: they register our tactile presence in a deeply felt way… Delighting in our physical presence, they may begin to purr and perhaps roll on their backs, exposing their vulnerability — as if to say, “I trust you. Give me some love and make me feel good.” Their gift to us is that they receive us deeply, without any troubling cognitions or disturbing memories… Cats can also help release oxytocin, which is associated with the feeling of being in love. As we know, love heals, and perhaps an important aspect of this healing is the bonding created by their ability to receive us deeply.

On a final note, if black cats were so bad, Felix the Cat would never have been honored, in 1927, with being the first ever balloon character to appear in a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.

Find these and similar prints by artist O. Elkan in NLM Digital Collections.

Read about more Halloween Treats from the National Library of Medicine in NLM in Focus.

Ginny A. Roth is the Curator of Prints & Photographs in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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