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Does a cat really have nine lives?

Cats jumping off wall

The truth behind the myth: Why do cats have nine lives?

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Cats are considered extremely lucky creatures. After all, no other animal can boast to having more than one life, let alone having nine.

By Zoë Monk

Updated on the 08/02/2021, 13:24

While cats are known for their Houdini knack of miraculously surviving some of the most precarious situations, unfortunately, they do only have one life.

We know, of course, that our beloved feline friends don't have nine lives. But despite this, the myth that moggies boast multiple lives has endured for hundreds of years, but how did this myth originate?

What does it mean to have nine lives?

Cats have earned a reputation for reincarnation thanks to the way they jump and land on their feet. Cats climb high trees, jump from high places and even run out in front of traffic. Yet, more often than not, they survive with not as much as a whisker out of place, giving the impression they must have multiple lives.

Why does a cat have nine lives? 

There's differing opinion to the origins of the cats with nine lives myth. Four key theories are:

  1. Cats always land on their feet thanks to their agility and dexterity. People have witnessed cats survive in extraordinary situations that would have likely injured other animals. 
  2. In ancient Egypt, cats were considered sacred animals and worshipped like gods. Ancient Egyptians believed cats were divine creatures who held supernatural powers. The idea that a cat had multiple lives fits in well with their view of cats. 
  3. Stems from the ancient proverb: "A cat has nine lives. For three he plays for three he strays, and for the last three he stays."
  4. Originates with Shakespeare, who planted the idea through his play, Romeo and Juliet. In Act 3, Scene 1, Tybalt asks, "What wouldst thou have with me?" Mercutio replies, "Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives."
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Why nine lives?

There are also differing opinions as to why it is nine lives specifically. Again, it could relate to the ancient proverb. However, other people think it's linked to the ancient Egyptians who we know worshipped their felines. Meanwhile, a common creation fable is that the sun god Atum Ra took the shape of the Great Tomcat or Mau when visiting the underworld and gave birth to eight other gods, representing nine lives in one. 

There's also mystical significance associated with the number nine in many cultures:

  • Christianity and Hinduism: The number nine symbolises divine completeness
  • Chinese culture: Nine is a lucky number
  • Norse mythology: The universe is divided into nine worlds
  • Greek mythology: There are nine muses

However, elsewhere in the world, such as in Spanish speaking regions, it is said that cats have seven lives, while Turkish and Arabic legends say six lives.

The facts behind a cat's nine lives 

While they may not have nine lives, cats are infamous for surviving some of the most precarious situations, miraculously appearing to cheat death, largely because:

  • Cats are fast: Cats can run 20 to 30 mph in short bursts thanks to their ability to lengthen their spine by alternately extending and flexing their backs, allowing them to make extra-long strides.
  • Cats are flexible: Cats have a very flexible spine which has 53 vertebrae compared to just 33 that us humans have. This elasticity enables a cat to rotate their body at angles up to 180 degrees, called a righting reflex, and helps them to land on their feet every time.
  • Cats are springy: Cats have springy and muscular legs that help them to absorb the shock of a hard landing. They can also jump up to nine times their height from a standing position.
  • Cats are like Houdini: Cats can flatten their bodies and squeeze through incredibly tight spaces thanks to their tiny collarbones.

Do cats actually have nine lives? 

Cats have just one life to live like everything else. The idea that cats have multiple lives is simply a myth and no truer than the numerous black cat superstitions. However, only having one life doesn't make cats any less incredible. Not many animals can withstand serious accidents or falls without being fatally injured in the way a cat can. They also have extraordinary dexterity, lightning-fast reflexes and incredibly quick decision-making skills.

Nobody really knows exactly where the myth of cats having nine lives started. But there's no doubt that these adorable yet hardy little furballs have an amazing set of survival skills that ensures our feline friends will always land on their feet.

Worried something is wrong with your cat? Check out our tips on how to choose a vet.

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