We’ve all heard the saying, “cats have nine lives.” The age-old adage is a phrase that’s been passed down from generation to generation and has served as a permanent fixture in pop culture. But where did the saying come from? And is there any truth behind it? Cats appear to be able to fall from tall ledges and go about their days completely unscathed, but do felines really stand a better chance of survival versus animals of other species?
The Origin of the Saying
Some speculate that the saying has been carried on from an ancient English proverb: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.”
Author Linda Ruggeri says the saying was even used by Shakespeare. “Mercutio gallantly replies to Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliette’ with something about taking one of his nine lives,” she says.
And the number nine itself has been a mystical number for centuries, Ruggeri says. Greek mythology refers to “The Nine Muses,” who were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne from a love affair between the two that lasted nine months. And the number nine has always been revered as lucky by the Chinese, as it is associated with strength and masculinity. In the Forbidden City, for instance, there are nine rows of nine knobs on many of the doors to convey the impression of power.
Others say that the verbiage dates back to Egyptian times.
“Egyptians revered cats and believed they held magical properties,” says Essam Hamed, an Egyptianologist and tour guide in Luxor, Egypt.
He says that a popular saying in Egypt is that cats actually have seven lives and jokes that it’s probably the United States that tacked on the two extra lives.
“When someone has many car accidents and lives, for instance, we say he is like a cat, as cats have seven lives and never die easily,” he says.
Many believe that the saying stemmed from a cat’s ability to survive extreme situations.
“I believe that the ability to right themselves during a fall is the main origin of the nine lives idea,” says holistic physical therapist Sally Morgan. “They have flexibility in their bones and ligaments (required for quiet stealth to attack their prey) that helps allow them to sustain minimal injury from many types of accidents.”
Dr. Brian Beale, an orthopedic pet surgeon and joint specialist says that, historically, cats have been observed to be able to live through events, like being thrown from tall towers or engulfed in fire, that typically would kill people or other animals.
Can Cats Cheat Death?
While the saying easily rolls off the tongue, Beale says that it’s far from true.
“There is actually no scientific evidence to suggest cats have nine lives — as far as we can tell, they have one life on this planet like everyone else,” he says.
[Cats] have flexibility in their bones and ligaments that helps allow them to sustain minimal injury from many types of accidents.
He does say, however, that nature does give felines some advantages that allow cats to escape from dangerous situations.
“They are incredibly intelligent and intuitive. They have lightning-fast reflexes, incredible dexterity, quick decision-making skills,” he says. “[Cats] have a very flexible spine and they do have the ability to position their body in a protective position in the event of danger.”
He also brings up an interesting case that touches on the “righting reflex,” where a cat is able to twist around very quickly in the air to land safely on his feet.
“Dr. Wayne Whitney, a veterinarian at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists, reported on the survival rate of cats falling from tall apartment buildings in New York City,” he says. “Because a cat reaches terminal velocity (maximum falling speed), 90 percent of cats survived a fall of greater than two stories. The average fall was five and a half stories.”
He adds that, interestingly, the cats that had higher falls had the best chance of survival, likely because they had more time to right themselves to the optimal posture to land with the least impact on their body.
“It is interesting to see 90 percent survival — nine out of ten — in the scientific article,” adds Beale. “Given the myth of cats having nine lives, is that just a coincidence?”
While the saying has been playfully revered for centuries, experts note that being deemed invincible is not always a positive for the feline species.
“It is not necessarily a good thing that cats are associated with this idea of having nine lives, as cruel people try to injure cats to see if they ‘can make it,’ including dropping them from great heights,” says Morgan. “Their righting mechanism is not meant to save them from falls from [tall buildings].”
She warns that pet owners therefore need to be just as careful with their cats as they would with any other pet.
Nicole Pajer is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles with her husband, energetic Doberman, and rat terrier.