Last updated: June 26, 2017
However many lives you think they have, no other animal has such a reputation for dodging death! They can fall from great heights then twist round in mid-air and land on all four feet. They can cling to vertical tree trunks with their claws to escape predators and chase prey. They can jump chasms with ease. They can spring from the ground on to roofs. Why wouldn’t you think this creature was the next best thing to immortal?
Myths and Magic
So why do we say ‘the Seven Lives of Cats?’ Why not three, or four, or ten? It’s partly because in the traditions and mythology of many countries the number seven was a sacred number, and cats were considered to be sacred too. In Spain, they have seven lives, in the English-speaking countries, nine, and in Arabic countries only six, poor things!
In ancient Egypt there was a cat-headed goddess called Bast or Bastet, and many cats were considered to be so sacred that they were often mummified when they died. (Rats were also mummified so that the cats wouldn’t starve on their way to heaven!) So we know that in Egypt they had at least two lives, one on earth and one in heaven.
Cats were a common household pet even in those days, and when houses caught fire, as they occasionally did, cats were sent in to escort the owners out of the premises. I have no idea why! Understandably this resulted in the occasional cremated cat, but that was OK, because they could always be taken to Bast for immediate resurrection, another possible reason for the seven lives of cats.
Another legend about the seven lives of cats says that Muezza the cat was once dozing on the sleeve of his owner’s robe. It was a hot day so he thought he’d stay till midday, after which he had big plans – there were a few rats out there with his name on them! Just when he’d settled down and gone to sleep, the call for morning prayers was heard from the mosque. His master, not wanting to disturb his beloved pet, cut the sleeve off his garment and left the cat sleeping, then he ran his hand tenderly over him three times. Muezza’s owner was the Prophet Mohammed himself, and he had gifted the cat with seven lives and ensured that it always landed on all fours. It’s said that the prophet was so devoted to his cat that he would interrupt his sacred ablutions to attend to its needs. That’s how powerful cats are!
The Righting Reflex
The reason that cats can do this amazing thing is because they have something called the ‘righting reflex’. This means that cats’ inner ear, which controls balance and spatial awareness, helps them to determine where they are relative to the ground, so they know when they are right side up.
So if they fall they bend in the middle so that the front halves of their bodies are rotating in a different direction from the back. They then tuck their front legs in and stretch out their back ones out so that they can twist around even more. After that they do the opposite by tucking in the back legs and extending the front ones. They can do this because of their extremely flexible spines, which contain more vertebrae than ours. They may have to make this maneuver several times depending on the height from which they’re falling.
They will then flatten out their bodies to increase surface area and create drag which helps to slow their speed. Their fur and their small body size also helps with this. They relax their limbs and voila! One cat in one piece! I know that my own cat, Rascal, has definitely used at least one of his lives doing this, because I saw him falling off the roof.
The High-Rise Syndrome
There is an accident which is now so common amongst apartment dwelling cat owners that it has a name of its own – ‘High Rise Syndrome’ which describes the phenomenon of cats and small dogs falling out of buildings when windows are left open. (This, of course, explains the saying ‘raining cats and dogs!’) You can imagine how quickly a cat could rattle through his seven lives if that happened! This can be prevented by leaving windows locked and not allowing your animals on the balcony.
Another wonderful ability that cats have (I wish I had it) is their ability to climb trees. They climb them as easily as you or I would run up a flight of stairs, because they are equipped with extremely strong, curved, extendable claws. This can be very handy if there’s a hungry lion standing on the ground at the bottom eyeing you up as a possible snack, because big cats can and do eat little ones. So this is another skill that can save one of the seven lives of cats!
With a Single Bound!
Ever heard that saying about Superman? He is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Your cat isn’t Superman, but he is able to do quite a good approximation of that. He can jump from the ground, hitch himself halfway up the wall then with two more hitch jumps, get on to the roof, where he can go yah-boo-sucks at anything chasing him. He can also survey the lie of the land. Cats are champion athletes!
Have you ever seen a cat walking along a six-feet high, one-inch thick wall topped by razor wire with a snarling dog on the other side? My cat does it every day. This is another one of those amazing things that helps your cat hold on to all seven of its lives. A cat has a flexible spine and specially adapted shoulder blades, plus an amazingly bendy tail, the equivalent of a tightrope walker’s balance pole. Last but not least there’s its Vestibular system which helps it to tell up from down. We all have this; it’s just that in cats it’s super efficient!
I’m really beginning to wish I were a cat! They have far more than seven lives if you take into account the fact that they live forever in writings and songs, paintings, drawings, dance, and even prayer! I don’t worship mine; I just love him, and we’re both quite happy with that.