Do Cats Get a Bad Rap?

Cats aren't perfect, but they don't deserve their bad rap.
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I wouldn't get a cat if I were you. Why not? They steal babies' breath. They scratch furniture. And black ones are bad luck. Cats even give a parasite to people -- Toxoplasma gondii. What's that? Almost all of that's false?! Cats do get a bad rap.

Perspective Matters

Whether or not you like cats, it's hard to argue that they deserve their negative reputation.

The majority of the superstitions about them are based on Old World beliefs that have been distorted across centuries. Many cat myths are based on false, often specious information and antiquated science.

Yes, some cats misbehave, but the majority of their destructive behaviors reflect natural impulses that are easily re-routed to appropriate venues once properly identified. Even modern science linking them to potentially harmful parasites requires extensive qualification and has been over-simplified in popular media.

Do cats get a bad rap? They're at the mercy of myths, centuries of misinformation and caterwaul without context. What do you think?

Mythological Legacy

Although there are plenty of societies that venerated cats -- the ancient Vikings and Egyptians are two popular examples -- there's a longstanding Medieval European tradition vilifying them. Cats are infamously associated with witches, demons and the devil in Christianity. (Roman Catholic Pope Gregory IX famously made a decree to this effect, although historical evidence is shaky.)

The myth that black cats are bad luck is a throwback to this pre-modern thinking. We now know that cats get their coloring from multiple genes, one of which expresses as orange or black. It's genetics, not demonic transformation.

Many animal shelters claim to have difficulty placing black cats and dogs because of this enduring belief. This could, ironically, be considered bad luck for black cats.

Old Science

One of the more modern myths associated with cats is that they steal babies' breath. There's at least one so-called case of this on record in the 18th century, as reported by a coroner who saw a cat in a crib with a dead infant. Sudden infant death syndrome wasn't in the diagnostic manual at that time, so the case in question could've simply been coincidence, in the literal sense of the word.

True, cats do like sleeping with babies in cribs. Cats like the warmth provided by the baby who, incidentally, can't pick up or bother the cat, as well as the elevated perch. Their reasons are selfish, not sinister.

New Science

Despite modern research that cat contact has health benefits for developing infants, students, seniors and people with chronic illnesses, one word makes many pet owners shudder: toxoplasmosis. This disease appears to be related to brain cancer.

Some cats carry the parasite responsible for this, Toxoplasma gondii, and you can get it through contact with cat feces. This is the reason many doctors recommend that pregnant women don't handle cat litter.

Scientists from Yale University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, among others, say you're far more likely to contract toxoplasmosis from undercooked meat, especially sheep, or from tainted soil than from cat waste. It's transmission is akin to E. coli, which is hardly ever associated with cats.

Feline Behavior

Cats do act out sometimes and have some bad habits that merit a bad rap at first glance. If you look at why they do what they do, though, you'll probably pardon your feline friends.

Cats scratch. They scratch to stretch their muscles, get rid of old claw sheaths and mark territory. Even declawed cats do it. If you give cats proper scratching posts -- with bark, sisal rope or cardboard, not carpet -- it'll likely cut down on how much they tear into furniture.

Cats also hunt. University of Georgia research conducted in 2012 showed that whatever your wandering cat drags home is probably just under a quarter of what they're killing in the wild. It may be the one case where cats don't get a bad enough rap.

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