Black cats get a bad rap.
Today, especially around this time of year, black cats are elevated to a symbol of fear. They’re a bad omen. A hex. Evil, even.
This is ridiculous, of course, because black cats are just…black. There’s nothing all that different between a black cat, a Tabby cat, and even your friend Shiela’s hairless cat that kind of looks like a hand? There are at least 22 cat breeds that can produce solid black cats.
So where did all the bad juju surrounding black cats come from? Let’s explore.
Historically, Everyone Was a “Cat Person”
There’s a lot of historical evidence that says just about every culture up until the Middle Ages not just loved cats, but practically (and in some cases literally) worshiped them. Cats were seen as demigods and in the first civilized cultures, domestic cats were regarded as having magical powers. They were thought to bring good luck on their owners and in seafaring times, sailors actually brought cats on board to help predict the weather and to ward off bad omens.
Then things changed. Somewhere around the Middle Ages, several popular mythologies around cats took hold. Celtic lore said that the Cat Sith was a black-spotted fairy cat who could shape-shift and even steal souls (yikes.) By the time the 12th century rolled around, cats had become associated with satanic rituals and even satanic possession itself. Pope Innocent VIII actually once declared that the cat was the “devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.”
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The Hubbub Over Black Cats Builds
Once the Catholic Church took a stance on cats, the myths solidified into warnings. Elderly widows who kept cats as companions were labeled as witches. Black cats in particular were further vilified. A black cat crossing in the moonlight was a sign of an impending epidemic (which was, anecdotally, pretty accurate! There were a lot of epidemics back then.) Cats were said to stand on the threshold between the civilized and the wild, which…true.
By the time the Pilgrims hit America, black cat hysteria was in full-bloom. People caught cavorting with black cats were severely punished, and any black cats that were captured were killed. Even pirates (pirates!) were terrified of what black cats signified. It was not a good time to be a Crazy Cat Lady, and an even worse time to be an actual cat.
Are Black Cats Still Vilified Today?
It’s important to note that most of the negative connotation surrounding black cats has only existed in Western societies. In Japan, for example, black cats have always been seen as a symbol of good luck, blessing single women with “many suitors.” In particularly rural parts of France and in some Norse cultures, they’re said to bring good fortune and even treasure, and to signal a good harvest lies ahead.
As a sad remnant of their historical maligning, black cats are still the least-adopted type of cats in shelters today. The ASPCA actually sponsors a “Black Cat Appreciation Day” on August 17th each year to boost the number of cats rescued. Funny enough, black felines are some of the softest cats in existence! Cat judges can pick out black cats blindfolded because their fur is so shiny and sleek, packed with smoothing melanin. Scientists have even posited that black cats’ genetic makeup actually makes them resistant to some common disease mutations.
The positive news is, black cats may (finally) be on the receiving end of some good PR. Certain shelters say they experienced an uptick in black cat adoptions after the hit movie Black Panther was released in 2018. And Netflix’s recently-released reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is expected to elevate black cats’ profile once more. Thanks, Salem!
Thinking of adopting a black cat? Good for you. Choosing a “less desirable” shelter cat is one way to maximize your rescue impact. Remember that some shelters put a moratorium on black cat adoptions right around Halloween to minimize the chance of cats being adopted for all the wrong reasons. If you’re interested in a black cat, call your nearest shelter and ask them about their specific policies.