The facts behind cats’ nine lives

How many lives does a cat have, really? We look at the truth behind the myth of their supernatural survival skills.

People and cats have been living alongside each other for as long as 8,000 years – and over that time, many myths have sprung up about our feline friends. A common saying we often hear is that cats have nine lives. But where does this legend of near-immortality come from? And why would a cat have nine lives, in particular?

Why do we say cats have nine lives?

A cat is one of the most agile, quick-witted and independent pets out there. In particular, cats can withstand falls that would easily kill a human – which perhaps explains where the idea that a cat has nine lives came from. In one documented case, a pet cat in New York City survived a fall of 32 storeys with only relatively minor injuries. This ability to survive against the odds is all thanks to a cat’s amazing anatomy:

  • Cats evolved to live in trees, and many wild feline species still do. Millions of years of springing or falling from a height ensure they have adapted to handle it well.
  • Their impressive ‘righting reflex’ enables them to twist their bodies around while falling, to land squarely on all four feet.
  • Cats have a large body surface area compared with their weight, which also helps reduce the force of their landing.
  • They also have great flexibility in their bones and ligaments, which helps them to sustain minimal injury from impacts.

Where does the saying come from?

No one knows where the expression ‘a cat has nine lives’ originated, but it has certainly been around for centuries. William Shakespeare even used the phrase in Romeo and Juliet:

‘Tybalt: What wouldst thou have with me?

Mercutio: Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.’

There’s also an old English proverb that states: ‘A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.’ This may be where the myth that cats have nine lives came from, although clearly the proverb is a light-hearted one.

Do cats have nine lives, or seven, or six?

Interestingly, the myth that cats have multiple lives exists around the world. However, it’s not always nine lives – the number varies from culture to culture. In certain regions of Spain it is believed that cats have seven lives, for example. Meanwhile, some Turkish and Arabic legends say cats have six lives.

Nine has traditionally been considered a magic number, which could also help to explain why cats are associated with nine lives. In ancient Greece, the number nine referred to the trinity of all trinities and a supernatural number that invokes tradition and religion. Cats have been both worshipped and feared over the ages, and were often seen as magical creatures.

Can cats cheat death?

Our cats have lightning-fast reflexes, speedy decision-making skills and remarkable agility. They’re adept at making themselves scarce at the first sign of trouble – or strolling nonchalantly along high ledges that would daunt most humans!

One incident where death might have been cheated was when a cat called Jack escaped his travel carrier at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the US and disappeared – only to fall through the airport’s ceiling two months later, weak and terrified. On another occasion, a cat called Jessie went missing after moving across Australia with her owner. A year later, Jessie showed up at her old house. Jessie’s owner said that since her pet hated getting in cars, she thought Jessie must have trekked 1,865 miles across the country, including crossing a barren desert!

These abilities may sometimes seem extraordinary, even supernatural, to us. But the idea of cats having nine lives is no more true than the myth of black cats being lucky or unlucky. Therefore, cats need as much care and attention as any other pet.

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