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Kitten in a tree

The essentials

  • No, cats do not have nine lives — Sorry, cat lovers, this is an old myth.
  • The saying itself is likely ancient — The belief that cats have nine lives likely dates back to Ancient Egypt.
  • Give them the happiest single life you can — Cat owners can do their part to make it a happy one with a good diet, a safe environment, and regular vet checkups.

How many lives do cats actually have? The common myth is nine. However, is that even possible? If you see a cat in a dangerous situation, should you shrug it off because they probably have a few extra lives left?

The (absolutely well-known yet hard) truth: the idea that our feline friends have nine lives is a persistent myth. However, historians note that the idea of cats having nine lives has been around for centuries, though the phrase’s exact origins are unclear. It may have started in Ancient Egypt, where it’s believed that the sun god dressed up like a cat during visits to the underworld. It has appeared in cultural literature, even cropping up in one of William Shakespeare’s works.

Here’s what we know about the ‘cats have nine lives’ myth – and ways you can extend the one life your feline has.

​​The cultural perspective

How did the idea that cats have nine lives come to be — and why was nine the magic number? There’s no evidence to suggest exactly where the phrase comes from. In fact, the history of cats has been largely passed down orally from generation to generation. However, the myth has likely persisted for a long time.

Ancient Egyptians believed cats had supernatural powers. They also believed in a Goddess named Bastet, who could change from human to cat, appearing and disappearing as if she’d died and come back to life.

Another God revered by the Ancient Egyptians, Atum-Ra, also turned into a cat during visits to the underworld. He is believed to have given birth to eight Gods. Quick math lesson: Eight offspring plus one Atum-Ra = nine lives.

Ancient Egypt wasn’t the only place that believed cats have extra lives, though the magic number varies from place to place. For example, in specific regions of Spain, cats have seven lives, so they say. Turkish and Arabic cultures put the number at six.

Greece also reveres the number nine. It’s considered the “trinity of trinities,” a magical number in Greek tradition and religious beliefs. Like the number nine, cats have held a special significance in Greek mythology and are seen as magical creatures.

The scientific perspective 

The origins of the common myth that cats have nine lives are a bit murky. But there are several plausible theories as to why people believe this old wives’ tale, including:

  • Cats land well. Cats have fallen from great heights and survived. A 1989 New York Times article noted researchers in one study found that only one of 22 cats that fell from more than seven stories died. In one instance, a kitty named Sabrina fell 32 stories from a New York City building and was discharged from the vet after 48 hours. Is it any wonder why the popular myth continues to swirl?
  • Righting reflex. Experts in the New York Times article pointed to their superior balance and not the popular myth about nine lives. Cats have the ability to orient themselves mid-fall so they land on their feet.
  • Flexibility. Cats may not have magical powers that allow them to cheat death, but they are very flexible in their joints and ligaments, so they can sustain impact better than most animals.
  • Their bodies. The hardy nature of cats is due, in part, to the way their bodies are designed. Felines are relatively lightweight but have a large body surface area. Like flexibility, this feature helps if they fall or experience impact.
  • Agility and resilience. Cats are known for being quick-footed and nimble, able to get out of precarious situations in the nick of time. This has fueled the idea that they have a few extra lives to spare.

Nine lives in popular culture 

The idea that cats have nine lives has made its way into literature, TV, and movies. An ancient proverb states, “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.”  William Shakespeare referenced the old English proverb in his tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The doomed Mercutio proclaims, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives,” during a fatal fight with Tybalt in Act 3, Scene 1.

Flash forward about three centuries: One of the most famous references to the nine lives myths occurs in the beloved film National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. After Aunt Bethany’s cat chewed on some tree lights and got charred, Cousin Eddie famously said, “If that thing had nine lives, he just spent ’em all. Whoo.” The line spurred plenty of T-Shirt sales, laughs, and legends.

The Nine Lives of Chloe King, an ABC Family TV series based on a Liz Braswell book series by the same name, centered around a teenager with cat-like reflexes, agility, and nine lives. The show barely lasted one life cycle, getting canceled after one season.

Debunking the myth

Typically, cats live around 10 to 15 years, though the oldest cat ever, Creme Puff, lived to be over 38. The best way to extend your cat’s life is to be a responsible cat parent by keeping them well-fed, safe, and up-to-date on routine vaccines and medications.

How to keep your cat safe 

Instead of leaving things to chance, keep your kitty safe and healthy with these practical tips:

Keep your cat indoors — Indoor cats live 10 to 15 years, while outdoor cats may only have an average lifespan of 2 to 5 years. Cats are natural-born hunters, but it’s best to keep them inside and away from other predators, stray dogs, and cars that could take the one life they have.

Create a safe environment — Keep your space free of hazards, like tree lights that could cause serious injuries and toxic foods.

Schedule regular checkupsYour vet will let you know how frequently they should see your cat. It’s usually at least once annually, but kittens, senior cats, and felines with health conditions may need more regular checkups.

Keep a balanced diet — Your vet is your best resource for nutrition. Age and weight generally play into portion sizes, though.

Consider an exercise plan — Cats are safest indoors, but they can still get physical activity. Toys like fish poles, climbing trees, and tunnels give them opportunities to run and play.

Being a responsible cat owner is the best way to extend your cat’s life. A well-balanced diet, exercise, and a safe environment will reduce injury risks. Cats don’t have nine lives, and it’s up to humans to care for them and keep them safe and healthy. Even with the best intentions, your cat will eventually pass — an undoubtedly challenging time for both of you. Once it’s time for them to cross the rainbow bridge, rest easy knowing there are plenty of ways to honor them and the full life you lived together.