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Black Cats: The Myth, The Legend, And The Science

A black cat takes a stroll toward the camera.A black cat takes a stroll toward the camera.
A black cat takes a stroll toward the camera.A black cat takes a stroll toward the camera.

One of nature’s prettiest sights is that of a sleek, shiny black cat with deep amber eyes. But as pretty as they are, they don’t come without controversy, and it can be hard to decipher the difference between black cat myths and facts.

One thing is certain, black cats stand out. I have owned many black cats and have never had one with a bad disposition. They are sweet, smart, funny and affectionate.

Black Cat Myths and Facts

Black cat lore is widespread and diverse. Wherever you go, someone has an opinion about black cats. Black cat myths and facts are often confused.

The Egyptians revered all cats as representatives of their goddess Bast (or Bastet). In Celtic mythology a Fairy named Sith takes on the form of a large black cat with a white spot on its chest.

Many superstitious Americans and Europeans have long held the opinion that black cats are unlucky.  This is where a lot of the confusion between black cat myths and facts comes from. During the Middle Ages ignorance assumed that single women who fed stray cats were suspect in witchcraft and that the cats were their “familiars,” or companions in black magic arts. This belief led to massive eradication of black (and other color) cats and gave rise to witch burnings, as well. The purging of cats thus allowed The Plague (Black Death) to wipe out nearly a quarter of the world’s population because the Plague was carried by rats and misguided people eliminated the rat’s enemy.

In contrast, many countries view black cats as being lucky. Great Britain, Russia, and Japan all regard black cats as bringing luck, especially if one crosses your path. In Ireland, however, should a black cat cross your path in the moonlight, you will die in an epidemic. Germany complicates things by believing that if a black cat crosses your path from right to left it brings bad luck, but if it crosses from left to right the luck will be good. Pirates complicated things further by believing that if a black cat walks toward you it is good, but if it walks away from you, your luck will be bad. This belief is the opposite in the U.K.

Seafarers and fishermen generally feel that cats are lucky, but if a cat walks on board a ship and back off, the ship is going to sink. Cruise goers take note!

Scots believe that a stray black cat will bring you prosperity. In Japan a single woman owning a black cat may expect many suitors, while in the English Midlands a black cat is considered to be a good luck wedding present.

English monarch Charles I grieved the loss of his black cat and declared that his luck was gone. The very next day he was arrested for high treason.

Thanks to still misguided beliefs and pranks, most shelters will not adopt out black cats around Halloween for fear of harmful intentions.

Famous Black Cats

In life and lore, black cats have made their mark. Some notable black cats are Dr. Samuel Johnson’s cat Hodge, Trim, a brave seafaring cat, George W. Bush’s cat, India, Felix the cat, Pluto (Edgar Allan Poe), Salem Saberhagen (Sabrina the Teenaged Witch), and Thackery Binx (Hocus Pocus).

The Science of Black Coats in Cats

Cat Fancier’s Association recognizes twenty two breeds of cats that may be black. The breed known as Bombay is exclusively black. Many black cats have golden eyes because of high melanin pigment content. Black cats come in short, medium and long-haired fur. One of my long haired black cats has white roots and he appears silver if shaved. This color is known as black smoke.

All cats are genetically either red or black or variations thereof. Two melanins account for the color. Eumelanin produces the blacks and browns, and Pheomelanine produces the reds to creams. Both cat parents must carry the black color gene in order to produce a black kitten. Two black cats will almost always have black kittens. The all-time dominant cat coat pattern is agouti, or tabby. In order for a cat to be solid black, it must carry a recessive gene known as non-agouti. Some black cats carry the agouti gene and therefore can be seen to have tabby patterns if they are in the sunlight. If one of the parents carries a red gene, the black coat may appear slightly rusty in bright light. Note that a rusty tint may also indicate a tyrosine deficiency which is required for the creation of eumelanin. Phenylalanine and tyrosine are important to long term neurological function in cats and your veterinarian can check for this deficiency and provide a supplement for your cat.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is conducting research into whether genetic mutations may protect black cats from FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus). This research may not only benefit FIV treatment but also HIV treatment.

Naming a Black Cat

Literature, art and history are filled with names that can suit a black cat well. I once had one named Faust. I have Sable and Spitfire, now. You can go with colors such as Ebony, Charcoal, Onyx, Coal, Midnight, or dip into theatre and literature (Phantom, Dracula, Bartholomew) or simply call him Blackie. See our full list of ideas – go to Great Black Cat Name Ideas. As long as you put out dinner, your little panther will come to whatever you call him. And don’t forget that August 17 is Black Cat Appreciation Day! Put that on your calendar and do something special for your black kitty!

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