Remember That Time the Government Thought Cats Could Predict the Weather?


In 1883, H.H.C. Dunwoody was commissioned by the U. S. Signal Service to write a guidebook aimed at enabling its members to forecast the weather more than 24 hours in advance. The resulting tome, Weather Proverbs, is a great read for science nerds on the state of meteorology in the late 19th century, as well as for folklorists in search of old wisdom on weather prediction.

So who cares about this? Well, the Internet’s been buzzing with news of Dunwoody’s words on cats’ ability to enhance weather forecasts. I checked out the book itself (which is available as a Google document), and I’ve decided that judging from the old proverbs, my cats may not have learned their weather prognostication lessons as well as they should have. Here are a few of the proverbs.

1. When cats sneeze, it’s a sign of rain

If my cats had gotten the memo about this, they’d be sneezing their fool heads off. We live in Seattle and it’s winter ÔÇô- which means it’s raining more often than not.

2. When cats are snoring, foul weather follows

I wish I’d heard about this one before I began observing that my cat, Thomas, does snore occasionally. I’m going to keep better track of my stripy man’s nocturnal noises to see if there’s some truth to this proverb.

3. When cats lie on their back, expect a storm

Or maybe just expect that cats like to sun their tummies on bright, warm days.

4. If a cat is basking in the sun of February, it must go again to the stove in March

I’ll definitely be checking on the truth of this one. As I write this, we’re enjoying a beautiful, sunny day in the upper 50s, and my cats are basking in the sun. The weather forecast — the one by meteorologists, that is — does say that after this warm spell it’s going to get cool and rainy again, so maybe they’ve got the right idea.

5. If sparks are seen when stroking a cat’s back, expect a change of weather soon

There’s actually some scientific credence to this old proverb. When air gets drier and colder, the lower relative humidity leads to an increase in static electricity. Changes in air temperature and humidity are related to the movement of warm fronts and cold fronts, which also affect temperature and weather: warm fronts tend to bring moisture and rainy/humid conditions, whereas cold fronts bring clear skies and dry weather.

6. When a cat washes with her back to the fire, expect a thaw in winter

In modern times, it’s hard to judge the accuracy of this one. Maybe if your cat washes herself with her back to the radiator or the heat register? In my apartment, I have a wall-mounted electric heating unit, and I have yet to see my cats washing themselves anywhere near it.

7. The cardinal point to which a cat turns and washes her face after a rain shows the direction the wind will blow

Is your cat facing north while doing her post-pluvial ablutions? That means you can expect the wind to blow toward the north. Honestly, I have no idea how much truth there is in this one. I’ve totally failed to observe anything about wind direction and cat baths.

Whether or not my cats are good weather forecasters, I’ll definitely pay attention if they start acting really weird, pacing and vocalizing excessively and so on. Animals have been known to start acting strange before earthquakes, and since I live on a fault line here in Seattle I’m going to listen if my cats can clue me in to an impending earthquake or eruption of Mount Rainier!

So, have you heard any old weather proverbs about cats? What are they, and how accurate do they seem to you? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.

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