Do Cats Really Have 9 Lives?

The saying “cats have nine lives” has been around for centuries. But where did this old myth come from, and does it hold any truth?

Jun 14, 2023By Heather Jarek, BA Veterinary Technology
do cats really have nine lives

If any animal were to have nine lives, it would be the cat. They are intelligent, agile, and gracefully land on all fours from impressive heights. So, the myth that cats have nine lives may seem almost believable. Of course, we know this to be false. Cats, like all living creatures, have just one life. But where does this old saying come from, and could there be any truth behind it?

Where Did the Myth Originate From?

ancient egyptian cat statue

Historians believe cats were domesticated around 12,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent during the Neolithic period. Researchers believe that 4,000 years ago, cats were domesticated a second time in ancient Egypt. Wild cats and humans shared a mutually beneficial relationship, where the cats would get free meals and shelter and, in return, chase away unwanted vermin and predators. This gradually led to the domestication of cats in ancient Egypt.

It's commonly thought that ancient Egyptians worshipped cats, but that’s not entirely accurate. They believed their gods could take the form of animals. Cats became a common vessel for the ancient Egyptian gods.

Cats in ancient Egypt represented gods and were a sign of royalty. They stood beside Egyptian kings and pharaohs. Upper-class Egyptians adorned their cats in gold and riches. With such a dignified status and their god-like comparisons, one could see how the myth of a cat’s nine lives may have started during this era.

Cats, English Literature, and Shakespeare

cats and shakespeare

Old English was the language of the Anglo-Saxons and the earliest recorded variant of the English language. Actual written evidence of the myth of a cat’s nine lives was found in an old English proverb that says, “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays.” The exact origin of this proverb is unknown, but it’s clear that the myth that cats have nine lives existed during that period which dates back to the 11th century.

Another documented reference to cats having nine lives comes from William Shakespeare’s famous play, Romeo and Juliet. “Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives,” Mercutio says to Tybalt. This play was written around 1594 and published shortly after.

Is it Always Nine Lives?

ancient egypt atum ra god of sun

The myth that cats have multiple lives has survived centuries and spread worldwide. However, in Spain, the cat has seven lives, while in Turkish history, it has six. The most common number remains nine, with some theories as to why.

Let’s go back to ancient Egypt, where the number nine was significant to the ancient Egyptians. They associated this number with Atum-Ra, their god of the sun. They believed this god would take the form of a cat to visit the underworld. By ancient Egyptian belief, Atum-Ra gave birth to eight other gods. Eight gods and Atum-Ra himself equal the nine lives.

In China, the number nine is considered lucky. The Jade Emperor is a Taoist supreme god that rules all heaven and Earth. The Jade Emperor’s birthday is on the ninth day of the Chinese New Year. Hebrews believe the number nine is a symbol of truth. There are many religions and countries that symbolize the number nine. This may be why the myth is most commonly known using nine lives.

Why Has the Myth Lasted Throughout the Years?

orange cat jumping

This myth has likely persisted for centuries due to that cat’s unique “air-righting” reflex. This reflex stems from the cat’s balancing system, which enables them to orientate their body quickly, even in the air. They also have a unique skeletal structure that allows them incredible flexibility. With this air-righting ability, cats can land on their feet from extreme heights with almost no effort. Cats have survived falls over 200 feet, so it’s no wonder that people believed they could cheat death!

How Long Do Cats Live?

cat lounging sleeping

So, how long do cats live if they don’t have nine lives? The average lifespan of a domestic cat is 12-18 years. This number can vary depending on the cat’s lifestyle, diet, and healthcare. A cat this is spayed or neutered, kept indoors, and has regular veterinary visits, will generally live longer than an outdoor cat that must battle the elements and hunt for its food. An outdoor cat’s lifespan is significantly shorter and falls between 2-5 years on average.

Common Health Problems That Affect Domestic Cats

veterinarian examining cat vet

The century-old saying “cats have nine lives” is indeed a myth. These beautiful, intelligent animals only get to spend a short time walking the earth beside their humans. Cats succumb to injuries and illnesses just like any other creature. The most common cat conditions that shorten an indoor feline’s precious time on Earth are cancer, hyperthyroidism, diabetes, kidney disease, and heart failure.

New medical treatments, vaccinations, and procedures are discovered every year, allowing our beloved pets to spend more time with us. There are things you can do to help increase your cat’s chances of living a longer, healthier life, such as keeping your cat indoors, feeding a well-balanced diet, keeping up with vaccinations, and scheduling regular veterinary visits.

Heather Jarek
By Heather JarekBA Veterinary Technology

Heather is a lover of all animals, big and small. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary technology in 2014. She has been working as a licensed veterinary technician for the last eight years. Her favorite hobby is horseback riding, and she has been riding horses since the age of eight. She enjoys spending time with her family at the lake with their golden retriever Calista in her free time.