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Cats Have an Image Problem

Americans are said to be smart, but some still believe myths such as black cats are bad luck.

Steve Dale  |  Oct 12th 2015


Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of Catster print magazine. Click here to subscribe to Catster magazine.

It’s astounding but true that lingering misperceptions about cats — which date back to the Dark Ages — still persist. There are people who insist that cats are evil, especially black cats.

As far back as 1346, when the Black Death was responsible for as many as 200 million deaths in Europe, many people — including some political officials of the day — blamed cats for the plague. As a result, cats were annihilated. This turned out to be a costly mistake when medical officials finally figured out that the plague was transmitted to humans from Oriental rat fleas that live on black rats. The players of the day embraced the cats, who killed the rats — after which plague deaths, of course, quickly declined.

However, those haters continued assailing cats. No doubt, many of those haters soon got sick and died.

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Grim reaper on the road by Shutterstock

As the great world philosopher (and cat lover) Taylor Swift said, “’Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play; and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”

Back then, people believed in witchcraft, and, for various reasons, black cats were associated with evil sorcery. Even much later, the pilgrims in the new land of America targeted people as being associated with witchcraft if they had a black cat.

Again I invoke a famous and revered philosopher: Sabrina, the Teenage Witch: “Once being witches themselves, black cats are especially nice because they want humans to love them.”

Sabrina might not have been so on target about black cats being witches. But we now know that there might be an association between coat color and personality, according to several studies. Of course, socialization and genetic family disposition are significant factors. For pedigreed cats, breed plays a meaningful role in personality, too. Still, overall, black cats tend to be a tad shy around strangers, but friendly and solely devoted to their people. In other words, they’re great pets.

Still, even today, most shelters have a difficult time adopting out black cats compared with, say, orange or calico. Witchcraft is probably not the issue, but somehow the black cat stigma endures. I’ve seen it: Someone sits on the floor in a shelter where six or a dozen or so cats might be kept in one room. The person says, “I’ll wait to see who adopts me.” A black cat tries very hard to solicit attention, rubbing up against the person and purring. Soon, an orange tabby or a tuxedo or a calico shows up. I can assure you, while the black cat is most solicitous, that black cat is the last choice for most people.

“Cats have a bad rap with so many stereotypes, which simply aren’t true,” said Julie White, PetSmart Charities director of programs, grants, and field initiatives. Earlier this year, PetSmart Charities conducted a nationwide survey of more than 1,000 participants to better understand how people feel about cats and cat owners. The findings confirm that old stereotypes about cats still exist.

Among the survey conclusions, the idea of the cat lady still persists. Of course, it’s ridiculous. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, most cat owners are families, not little old ladies who collect cats.

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Yet so many stereotypes about cats exist: Cats are unfriendly; cats are conniving; cats cause schizophrenia; pregnant women need to give up their cats (for fear of toxoplasmosis); cats suck the breath out of babies and suffocate them; cats are antisocial; cats are inherently evil but tolerate people because we feed them. As a species, dogs have no such image issues. I suggest that’s because we’ve genetically evolved side by side with dogs and because we’ve bred them to be naturally appealing to us. We can’t help but be attracted to puppies.

When it comes to cats, there’s little gray area. People either love them or they don’t. And sometimes when they don’t, they disdain them. I suggest their dislike is based on ignorance. The United States is supposed to be a pretty smart place. But sometimes I wonder. Even today, people believe antiquated notions including black cats are bad luck and that cats are conniving to end our way of life.

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Black cat love by Shutterstock

Sometimes, talking sense can help. And many organizations, such as PetSmart Charities, are attempting change things. I believe that little by little we’re making progress. Then I meet this guy who goes on about how cats are so unfriendly. As we’re about to enter his home, he says, “Wait here. Seriously, I have to put my dog away, or he’ll bite you.”

I said, “That’s right — cats are unfriendly.”

About the author: Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior consultant. He is a national newspaper columnist (Tribune Content Agency); heard on WGN Radio, Chicago; host of the nationally syn- dicated Steve Dale’s Pet World and author of the e-book Good Cat, among others. He’s a founder of the CATalyst Council, and serves on the boards of the Winn Feline Foundation and Tree House Humane Society, Chicago. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.