Do Cats Really Have Nine Lives?

For how many times my Persian-Mix cat dodged in front of a car, jumped out of a window, fought a dog or leapt into a cat fight, I seriously began to wonder, Do cats really have 9 lives?

The Righting Reflex

Science dictates to us that cats do not, in fact, have 9 lives but like us, have only 1. We must understand however, that the lightning reflexes of cats coupled with their ability to right themselves from a fall from a great distance due to their 'righting reflex’ gives us the impression that cats can survive practically any catastrophe. Cats have a huge reputation for their jumping and landing abilities. When they jump, they can jump high and when they land, they usually land upright, upon their feet! Cats have been known to fall off buildings during an earthquake and still survive or emerge from a collapsed building! Thanks to their 'righting reflex' cats are able to twist and turn around very quickly as they fall through the air. Their extremely good balance coupled with their flexible backbones add to their survivability capabilities.

Origin of 9 Lives

How does that old English proverb go? "A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays."

Although the proverb is not to be taken seriously, the nine lives myth can be traced back further in history.

Nine has always been a number which supposedly harbors magical connotations. The ancient Greeks believed the number nine was a mystic number which invoked tradition and was referred to as the trinity of all Trinities.

In ancient Egypt the cat was revered and worshiped. The nine gods of the Ennead was composed of Atum-Ra, the sun God who gave life to the gods of the air, moisture, earth and sky. In turn they produced Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys. Atum-Ra, when visiting the underworld took on the form of a cat and embodied nine lives in a single creator.

In Europe cat worship lingered until at least the Middle Ages but the cat was no longer regarded as divine but instead was regarded as magical. Medieval Europe was known to be a tough place for a cat to live among some obscure rituals which had cats being tossed from high towers. Legend dictates the tale of Baldwin III, Count of Ypres, who threw cats from a tower in AD962. The event is still marked to this day with an annual cat festival. The Belgian town celebrates with a parade honoring the cat's history after which cats are thrown from their 70-meter Cloth Hall Tower. Live cats were used up to 1817 but the cats ran away so quickly they were never caught again for similar ceremonies. Now only toy cats are used these days!

Explained by Science

The cats remarkable ability was finally explained by science in 1894 when the French photographer and physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey (who's photographic research was a primary tool for human and animal movement) held a cat by its legs, upside down, then dropped it! The experiment was captured by a camera that took 60 images a second. The film demonstrates how a cat rights itself and lands on its feet by twisting and maneuvering its head, back, legs and tail to lessen the impact.

Height Matters

Cats don't always land the right way up which is why they sometimes return home with a limp or a bruise. So in reality they aren't that tough. Studies from cats falling from varying heights suggest that about 90% survive with broken bones and bruised paws but distance is crucial. Too high and the results are messy, just like their human counterparts. Too little and the cat doesn't have time to correct its fall.

Still, the cat inspires fascination which is why the myth of the cat and its nine lives has endured.

Proverbial Curiosity & The Cat

Usually curiosity doesn't kill the inquisitive feline as they have a great knack for avoiding death by a whisker. These vigorous explorers dodge danger at every turn and why not, they have eight more lives than the common, everyday house pet... right? Wrong!

The multiple cat life myth exists in many of the world's cultures but not all cultures cite nine lives. Some of the Spanish speaking areas believe cats have seven lives while Arabic and Turkish tales claim cats have six lives! But when you think about it even two life's would be better than one!

Learn more at Wonderopolis.

By Tom Matteo