Whenever a cat avoids injury after a fall or narrowly escapes an accident, all roads lead back to the phrase “cats have nine lives.” For example, a cat in Boston fell 19 stories from a window and walked away nearly unscathed, and another cat in Oregon escaped the wildfires by jumping from a cliff and floating on a log. So, how is this possible, and why do cats have nine lives?
Cats have nine lives because of their flexible spines, incredible balance, quick reflexes, and a “righting” reflex. All of these allow cats to escape dangerous situations quickly, safely, and on all fours. Nine is the magic number, but some countries insist that cats have six or seven lives instead.
Cats might not literally have nine lives or the ability to reincarnate, but they certainly have nine lives in more of a metaphorical sense. To learn about why cats have “nine lives,” read on!
Where the Phrase Comes From
Nearly every unusual phrase in the English language traces back to an ancient proverb. In the case of “cats have nine lives,” the phrase presumably dates back to the Old English quote:
“A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.”
However, this isn’t the only historical reference to cats being able to “cheat death.” Other possible origins for this now-popular coined phrase include:
- Romeo and Juliet: Mercutio stated, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives,” in act 3, scene 1 of the famous Shakespeare play.
- The Egyptian Sun God, Atum-Ra: The Sun God created eight other Gods and sometimes took on the form of a cat, equaling nine gods in total.
- Chinese “Lucky Number”: The number nine in Chinese culture signifies “luck,” possibly referencing a cat’s knack for surviving unusual situations.
It’s also worth noting that not all cultures agree that cats have nine lives. For example, countries like Brazil, Germany, and Spain believe that cats have seven lives. And in many Arabic cultures, cats have just six lives.
What Is the Meaning of Cats Having 9 Lives?
“Cats have nine lives” is a literary phrase used to describe a cat’s extraordinary balance, agility, flexibility, and reflexes in times of peril. For example, a cat can land perfectly on its feet after jumping from a tall tree branch or even squeeze through a narrow door opening to escape a house engulfed in flames.
Here are four reasons that cats bring truth to this phrase, albeit not in a literal sense:
If you’re a cat owner, you’ve probably seen your cat’s balance in action, like seemingly tightrope walking the stair railing or even entirely avoiding the mess on a cluttered countertop. A cat’s incredible balance comes from the combination of its tail and inner ear make-up.
In other words, a cat can remain balanced with deliberate stepping, even if a cat is:
- Walking along a section of fencing
- Balancing on the edge of a garbage can
- Venturing across a high tree branch
- Sleeping on a window ledge
- Trekking along a telephone wire
In situations where other species like dogs or rodents would likely fall or become impaled, cats seem to be well within their comfort zone.
When a dog finds itself backed into a corner, it’ll press its ears back, widen its eyes, growl, show its teeth, and even attack. When a cat’s in a similar situation, it finds a way to escape.
Many people claim that cats have nine lives because cats can do incredible things with their bodies. That includes jumping five feet or higher, scaling a tree trunk in a matter of seconds, and running at speeds exceeding 30 miles per hour.
A cat’s advanced agility allows it to do amazing things like outrun predators, jump onto roofs when floodwaters rise, or escape a raging fire by jumping from a window.
Many people toss around the phrase “cat-like reflexes,” but you may not realize just how impressive these feline reflexes are. The most crucial reflex in cats is the “righting reflex.”
When a feline falls from a height of at least three feet, the inner ear detects imbalance. A cat will instinctually rotate its body mid-air by stretching its spine and arching its back, a move that looks spastic from the human perspective.
Yet, this righting reflex allows a cat to land feet-down on all-fours gently.
Cats develop this reflex as early as three weeks old, even if they never experience a significant fall at any point in their life.
If you’re wondering why cats don’t jump down from trees or roofs when they appear stuck, it’s simple. Some cats get nervous being so high up in an unusual place, and, other times, a cat doesn’t know how to climb down a tree.
Want to learn more about how cats always seem to land on their feet? The video below will explain the science behind the righting reflex:
Cats might be some of the most nimble domestic critters on the planet, but they also happen to be among the most flexible. A cat’s overly-supple vertebrae, ligaments, and tendons provide more cushion and elasticity in times of need.
So, what does that all mean in the theme of nine lives?
A cat’s insatiable flexibility allows a cat to survive falls from high heights, wriggle through tight spaces, sprint at quicker than usual speeds, and stop or change direction on a dime.
Cats may not literally have nine lives, but their flexible joints enable them to do things like:
- Squeeze through a narrowly-opened doorway to ditch a room
- Twist 180° to escape a vicious dog’s grasp
- Stop short before darting into traffic
- Crawl beneath a couch to hide from an intruder
While your cat’s slinky-like body shape may seem adorable to you, it also serves as a significant protective factor when danger strikes.
Why Do Dogs Not Have 9 Lives?
Dogs don’t have nine lives because they’re not as flexible, agile, or quick-witted as cats. And according to the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the difference is about 26 stories.
A cat can survive from a fall up to 32 stories, partially because a cat will spread all four legs mid-fall to slow down, somewhat like a parachute. But while a cat’s “righting reflex” practically ensures a smooth landing on all fours, dogs aren’t quite as lucky. Dogs are far less lighter on their feet than cats and rarely survive balcony falls from six stories or higher.
Another explanation is that dogs are usually far more dependent on humans than cats. A dog left abandoned in an apartment may not be resourceful enough to raid the cabinets for food and may not pee or poop for days. Yet, a housecat wandering in the wild will have the instinct to chase down rodents for food, relieve themselves in a pile of dirt, and create a bed of leaves.
Cats have an uncanny ability to cheat death, but that doesn’t mean your cat is invincible to the elements or accidents. Instead of shrugging off a potentially dangerous situation, keep your cats safe by housing them outdoors and locking up wires, chemicals, and foods that can be harmful.
Also, keep a close eye on your cat’s health. A bout of diarrhea or an occasional hairball might be normal, but your cat’s “nine lives” won’t rescue her if she has a severe medical condition. A vet visit is always a better indicator of your cat’s lifespan than an old English proverb.
- BBC: Who, What, Why: How do cats survive falls from great heights?
- NPR: A Story Of A Dramatic Escape From Wildfire In Oregon
- PETA: Indoor Cat Hazards
- Spark Notes: No Fear Shakespeare: Romeo & Juliet
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association: Cats Can Survive Falls from High Places
- Wikipedia: Righting Reflex