We’ve all heard the old adage ‘cats have 9 lives’ but, strangely, no-one’s entirely sure where it came from. The full Old English proverb states “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays” which documents a cat’s typical behaviour throughout their lifetime – they’re playful, then they’re intrepid explorers, and then they seem to settle down in their senior years. The saying has been abridged, however, and is often used to reference a cat’s ability to narrowly escape accident or injury and escape the most dangerous of situations unscathed, often as a result of their incredible dexterity and agility. Cats’ unique ability was even mentioned by Shakespeare in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ when Mercutio said to Tybalt, “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives.”
It’s not always 9 lives … in some Spanish speaking countries cats are said to have 7 lives, while Turkish and Arabic legends suggest the number is 6. Whatever the specific figure, it’s generally agreed that cats seem to have several lucky escapes during their lifetime that would be enough to see off a lesser being.
As a vet, I’ve sadly witnessed many times when this myth hasn’t been the case, however there have also been times when I’ve been astounded by the survival abilities of these fortuitous felines. Owners have come into the practice to have their cats checked over, regaling me with tales of the most terrifying circumstances, and yet … the cat appears to have escaped with barely a scratch! We’ll always give them a thorough check over to make sure there are no masked injuries but I’ve lost count of the times when we’ve been amazed by their abilities to cheat death – like Tom Cruise casually sauntering away from a huge explosion in a Hollywood Blockbuster, these confident kitties nonchalantly dodge deadly peril like it’s all in a day’s work.
Much of their incredible ability is due to their dexterity and lightning reactions, especially what’s known as the ‘righting reflex’ which refers to a cat’s ability to turn in the air using their sensitive ears and sense of balance to orient themselves, ensuring that they always land the right way up. This is why cats are said to always land on their feet; it’s largely true, and is no coincidence. Evolution has played a real trump card for our feline friends here! With no collarbone and a very flexible spine, cats are easily able to correct themselves when they fall by arching their back, bringing their feet under their body and reaching forwards with their front paws to protect their face. It’s an ability that they develop as kittens and retain throughout their lives, providing their general health remains good and they avoid carrying excess weight (which can affect this natural ability). Their muscular, angled legs act as shock absorbers to reduce the impact of landing … allowing cats to coolly walk away even after a fall from a great height. One cat, who fell 32-storeys onto concrete from an apartment in New York, reportedly survived with just a chipped tooth and a collapsed lung. After a 48-hour stay at the vets this lucky kitty was once again up and about, looking for a new adventure!
While even your average pet cat has probably seemingly cheated death once or twice, there are always those that take this ability to the extreme! A number of cats around the world have quite rightly earned themselves a place in history for their unbelievable survival stories, and not always for their unique ability to land on their feet. Amongst these cat tales (tails?!? Sorry… couldn’t help it) are intrepid trekkers, brave rescuers and cats that have apparently come back from the dead…
Now this is a tale of sheer determination if you ever heard one – and a fight back against cruelty. Andrea, a stray cat in the US, had outstayed her 30-day limit in an animal shelter and was, according to their rules at the time, destined to be euthanised in a gas chamber. But Andrea had different ideas. When the first attempt didn’t work, she was pushed back in. Thinking she was dead after the second attempt, workers wrapped her body in a bag and placed her in a refrigerated container to await disposal. When the cooler was opened 45 minutes later they heard a faint mewing sound … you guessed it, Andrea was still fighting for her life. Thankfully, her brave fight was rewarded and Andrea was fostered by a loving family. She went on to be a poster-kitty for animal rights and the fight against the cruel use of gas chambers.
Jessie’s Australian owners undertook a long-distance house move … but apparently they didn’t consult their beloved pet on her feelings about the relocation. She soon disappeared from the new home only to turn up a year later at her old house – a staggering 1,865 miles away! Jessie hates cars so her owner believes that she must have made the journey on foot; even with four feet, that’s a verrrry long way! Luckily, her owner decided that since Jessie had made her wishes clear she should be allowed to stay in the location she clearly preferred, and she was taken in by a neighbour.
In 1999, a Birmingham couple were given the devastating news that their cat, Dixie, had been killed in a car accident. But the couple never quite believed their beloved Dixie was gone … and nine years later, in 2008, they received a call giving them the news they’d always dreamed of. Dixie had been found, alive and well, less than a mile from their home. Now, if that’s not a reason to have your cat microchipped, I’m not sure what is!
This heroic cat from Newry was taken in as a stray by the Curran family … and, little did they know, it was the best decision they could ever have made. When they left a turkey cooking overnight on Christmas Eve in 2021, the dripping fat caused plumes of smoke. The deadly fumes engulfed the home where six people in the family were asleep, blissfully unaware of the dangers. Spuds raised the alarm by repeatedly jumping on owner Brandan’s chest to awake him, an act that not only undoubtedly saved their lives but also earned Spuds a well-deserved ‘Most Caring Cat’ award from Cats Protection. Well done Spuds, you hero!
Whether your cat has had a near miss, or has been badly injured, we’re here for them – our fearless feline friends often appear to have 9 lives but sometimes they need a helping hand to nurse them through turbulent times. Even if you think they’ve had a lucky escape, it’s always best to have your Kitty checked over to make sure they haven’t got any internal injuries that could get progressively worse or cause problems at a later date.