October 27th is National Black Cat Day - meow! Most of us have heard the superstitious tales: don’t walk under a ladder, don’t break a mirror, and whatever you do, don’t let a black cat cross your path. Supposedly, all will lead to bad luck. So, how did these beautiful felines get such a bad rap? And how has superstition affected the very real pet adoption statistics for black cats?
How Did Black Cats Become Associated with Bad Luck?
The mythological link between black cats and misfortune seems to trace its origins to a folk tale that made its way around England during the 16th Century. Apparently, two travelers—a father and son—came across a black cat along the road. Startled, they attempted to chase the animal off by throwing stones at it. To escape, the cat sought shelter in the home of an old woman who lived alone.
The next night the pair passed the house again, but this time only the woman was in view. They noticed she was limping and concluded that she was the cat they’d encountered on the previous night. (At the time, it was common to believe that some old women were not only witches but could also alter their form at will.) And while nobody seems sure why the travelers threw stones at the cat in the first place, the association between black cats and danger has endured.
Myths & Misconceptions About Adopting Black Cats
Unfortunately, the quaint 16th-century folk tale has had some very real (and lasting) impacts on black cat adoptions, at least here in the U.S. Huffpost reported that black cats are less than half as likely to be adopted as their non-black counterparts. Also, over a quarter of people surveyed said that color was an important factor to consider when adopting a cat. Thirteen percent of those surveyed also admitted that they were superstitious about black cats. All this spells bad news when it comes to euthanasia. Black cats are not only less likely to be adopted, they’re also more likely to be euthanized than other cats.
In fact, in October, many shelters avoid adopting out black cats to avoid any issues of animal cruelty. What a shame that these majestic creatures are subject to such superstition and danger.
Why Adopt a Black Cat?
While they may have lost the fight for folk hero status, black cats do have some solid science in their favor. The combination of all-black fur and orange eyes is associated with some wins in the genetic lottery. A 2003 study published in New Scientist used melanin mapping to sequence the genes associated with an all-black coat in cats. They found that the combination of a black coat and orange eyes (found in big cats like jaguars as well as in domestic cats) boost immune resistance to some diseases.
Black Cats in Other Cultures
Outside the U.S. and Western Europe, the myth that black cats are bad luck loosens its hold. In many places, such as Russia, Egypt, and China, black cats are actually seen as signs of good fortune.
In ancient Egypt, the goddess Bastet (daughter of Ra) was portrayed as having a human body and the head of a black cat. Consequently, some Egyptians believed that having a black cat (or several) in the home could draw goodwill from Bastet. The cats were also served a practical purpose—protecting the home from vermin and snakes.
And In Chinese and Japanese culture, the “Maneki Neko” (beckoning cat) is a common symbol of good luck. And while the cat’s raised paw might look threatening to Westerners, it’s actually a welcoming gesture. One legend holds that a man caught in a sudden storm took shelter under a tree. He noticed a cat nearby that seemed to beckon him to enter a temple. He accepted the invitation, and moments later the tree was struck by lightning. Because the cat had saved the man’s life, it was viewed as a symbol of good fortune. Each “beckoning cat” is believed to have different strengths, depending on the animal’s color. The black cat is thought to ward off evil.
In some cultures, black cats are seen as good omens for pending nuptials. In Japan, owning a black cat was once believed to attract more suitors to a young woman seeking a husband. And in the English Midlands, giving a black cat as a wedding gift was believed to bring the bride good fortune and happiness.
While the black feline’s reputation in Western Europe is generally dark, there are some bright spots. For example, English and Irish sailors in the 17th through 20th centuries believed having a black cat aboard assured a safe journey. For this reason, black cats were often made ship’s cats—where they were also helpful in protecting the ship’s stores against vermin. Sailors’ families also embraced the black cat at home, believing its presence would assure their loved ones’ safe return from the sea.
Famous Black Cats
Fortunately, superstition has not stopped celebs from adopting black cats. From Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway to Bob Dylan and Cher, celebs have long loved their onyx felines. And a few black cats have achieved their own degree of notoriety, including “Binx” (from Hocus Pocus) and “Salem” (from Sabrina the Teenage Witch).
Black Cat Appreciation Day
To help restore the positive reputation of these beautiful onyx cats, the US annually celebrates National Black Cat Appreciation Day as well as National Black Cat day. While you may not get the day off from work, it is an opportunity to adopt a black cat into your family, as many shelters offer reduced adoption fees for all-black felines on these days. When you’re considering pet adoption, check with your local shelter to see if they’re celebrating, and remember that black cats are just waiting to bring you the good fortune of their love and companionship!
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.