There are a lot of well-known cat sayings, but the one about cats having nine lives is the most intriguing. So is there any truth behind it—do cats really have nine lives? Well, unless they are zombie cats that come back from the dead, or playing the part of one in a scary movie, the answer is no. But the nine lives myth persists, and it had to come from somewhere. Samantha Bell, Cat Behavior and Enrichment Lead at Best Friends Animal Society in Los Angeles, agrees that cats have always been surrounded by mystery, maybe partly because they still retain some of their wild instincts. “I think the saying that they have nine lives stems from their ability to land on their feet when they jump or fall combined with their mysterious nature. I’ve read that nine is a mystical number, and thought of as divine in many cultures and religions. And I’ve also heard there is an old English proverb that goes, ‘A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.’” Perhaps if you combine their extraordinary ability to survive falls and quick reflexes that help them cheat death again and again, you’d come to the conclusion that cats really do have nine lives.
Lifesaver 1: Landing on All Fours
How is it that a falling cat can land upright most of the time? According to Bell, it’s because they have a “righting reflex” that lets falling cats land on their feet. She explains that “when a cat is in freefall, their inner ear sends a signal for four things to automatically happen as they twist themselves to face downwards: their head turns, their spine rotates, their hindquarters align, and their back arches to cushion the landing and minimize injury.” This amazing ability pretty much ranks as a superpower.
Lifesaver 2: Extreme Sense of Balance
Bell explains that like humans, a cat’s excellent sense of balance is controlled by the inner ear, but with a little added help from the tail. In fact, it’s the semi-circular inner ear canals that initiate the “righting reflex” in falling cats. “And cats use their tail as a counterweight to compensate for changes in weight distribution,” says Bell. That’s why they can balance on narrow ledges, up and away from would-be predators.
Lifesaver 3: Flexible Spine
If you’ve ever seen your cat propped up against a pillow, in what looks like an impossible yoga pose, in order to clean their nether regions, you’ve witnessed their flexibility firsthand. Being able to clean all parts of their body helps eliminate scents that could be detected by predators, Bell notes. “A cat’s spine is able to rotate more than the spines of other animals (180 degrees either way!), and their vertebrae have flexible cushioning on the disks. This helps them wiggle out of perilous situations with predators (or nail clippers!).”
Lifesaver 4: Healing Purrs
The mighty purr of a feline can heal all that ails you—or at least it can help. Cat purrs can not only help heal themselves, but also humans. They’re set to the right frequency that just so happens to be the ideal vibration level for healing. Bell elaborates: “The best frequencies for promoting bone strength are between 25 and 50 Hz, and, since cat purrs are around 20 Hz, those purrs can promote bone strength and healing. Purring can also reduce stress, which in turn will help your blood pressure.” Maybe instead of laughter, cats are actually the best medicine.
Lifesaver 5: Free-Floating Bones
This one sounds pretty creepy, but it’s actually really cool. Unlike our rigid body structure, cats have free-floating clavicle bones, so their shoulder blades are attached by muscle instead of bone. Bell explains that this way, cats can squeeze their shoulders together so close that their bodies can slip through spaces no bigger than the size of their heads. On top of that, this feature allows their body to extend further so they can run faster to escape danger.
Lifesaver 6: Built-In Motion Sensors
Sometimes it seems like cats have a sixth sense—that they know when someone’s coming. It’s not your imagination. They have biological motion detectors built right in to their seemingly ordinary whiskers. These little sensors are constantly monitoring the air movement to notify a cat if something or someone is approaching.
Lifesaver 7: Heightened Senses
Most people talk about a dog’s acute sense of hearing, but it’s felines who truly excel in this category. They can hear higher pitches than even dogs, and are much better at distinguishing between different tones and pitches much better than humans. And while they don’t have great daytime vision, a cat’s night vision is pretty advanced. Their eyes can reflect light to allow more light to reach the retina, which has more light-absorbing rod cells than a human’s retina.
Lifesaver 8: Light Feet
You’ve probably watched your cat prepare for a jump and said, there’s no way you’ll make that. But somehow she does, and she does it gracefully. Bell notes that cats can jump from ridiculously tall heights, and they use their tail to control their landings. The average adult cat can jump about five or six times their own height, which is an excellent ability to have when you’re trying to evade some sort of threat.
Lifesaver 9: Defense Mechanisms
When all else fails, and there’s no escape route, a cat can always “use their extremely sharp claws and teeth to defend themselves and get away,” Bell points out. Made for climbing and snagging prey, the mighty cat claw can also help ward off other animals. Their teeth can become pretty threatening weapons, too!
So as far as cat sayings go, there’s a little bit of truth behind the idea of nine lives. Cats are pretty amazing creatures—a little wild, extremely agile and able to “cheat death” with some unbelievably amazing feats.
Nikki Naser, Pet Central Senior Editor
Instead of owning 30 cats, Nikki has an impressive collection of 30 cat-themed T-shirts, and just 4 pets—a ginger-haired senior cat, a senior Maine Coon, a middle-aged Choodle, and a young kitty who showed up one day on the back steps. A former Orlando resident, Nikki worked on several tourism publications before moving to South Beach. When she’s not stopping to take pics of community cats to post on Instagram, Nikki spends her time with the office pets at Chewy, writing for their Pet Central blog.