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Cast a Spell on Me – Old Wives’ Tales: Fact or Fiction? (Part 2 of 2)

Jul 24, 2013 by     1 Comment     Posted under: Personal Opinion

If you missed it: Cast a Spell on Me – Is the Cat a God or the Devil? (Part 1 of 2)

What exactly is an Old Wives’ Tale?  And why do cats feature so prominently in them?  These tales are fables and legends passed on through the generations in an effort to explain the inexplicable or predict fate.  So many involve cats because, well, cats are the ultimate in inexplicable behavior and their general unwillingness to do humans’ bidding has resulted in the profoundly divided feelings so many people have for cats.

Old Wives’ Tales were rampant during the 1600s and on, and most were not in the cat’s favor, although the classic American warning to beware a black cat crossing your path was interpreted very differently over in Europe.  There it was seen as a sign of good luck and potential financial windfall.  Worry about black cats in the United States began during the Puritan times and derived from their association with witches and Satanism, and to this day, black cats frequently are the last to be adopted from shelters and rescue organizations.  There is still a pervasive belief that cats, especially black cats, are a source of danger and corruption.

Here are a few classics from the Old Wives’ Tales hall of fame, some of which might actually hold a kernel of truth:

Cats can place curses on pregnant women

This originated from the idea that cats are connected to the devil, and that they have demonic powers that allow them to be very dangerous and evil—particularly to pregnant women and young children—but able to avoid harm themselves.  The actual curse on pregnant women involved harm to the unborn baby.  This could be through stillbirth, mental impairment or generalized birth defects resulting in life-long problems or even death.  Obviously, a curse is a bit far-fetched.  What is less of a stretch, though, is what happens to pregnant women infected with a cat parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, which has been implicated in causing a wide range of infant birth defects.

Cats can kill young children with a single scratch

Well, we know bacteria can kill anyone during the right circumstances.  And in rural areas with poor nutrition and rudimentary medications, infected wounds from bacteria associated with cat bites and scratches can probably occasionally result in bad medical outcomes.  We also know cat scratch disease, Bartonella hensalae, can cause significant medical problems, and it would not be unheard of for a young child with a compromised immune system to become sick or even die from that bacterial organism.

Cats suck the breath from babies

Tragedy is always difficult to bear, and it is human nature to try to find an explanation.  Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is both tragic and unpredictable, and the Old Wives’ Tale of cats sucking the breath from infants probably derives from this event.  The danger to babies would come from an angry cat who was jealous of the newborn infant and upset about the loss of attention.  These cats would seek the opportunity to smother infants in their cribs.  Does this sound crazy?  Well, as recently as 2000, an infant death was originally attributed to the cat lying in the crib with the dead baby.  That cause of death was later documented as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, but the myth about cats sucking the breath from babies is still—to this day—pervasive.  During the 1800s, women routinely testified at coroner’s inquests about their cats “sucking the wind” from infants and killing them by shoving their nose in the baby’s mouth while the baby was sleeping.  In 1929, a Nebraska doctor said that he’d seen “the family pet in the very act of sucking a child’s breath, lying on the baby’s breast, a paw on either side of the babe’s mouth, the cat’s lips pressing those of the child and the infant’s face pale as that of a corpse, its lips with the blueness of death.”  Pretty dramatic stuff!  But cats as we know are attracted to warmth, and may cuddle with a child, who might lack the ability to turn its head away or push the cat off, and the rest…

So, our relationship with the number one pet in America is complicated.  We have a much more matter of fact relationship with our dogs.  There is nowhere near the number of dog superstitions or phobias, and the dog was neither worshipped as a god nor was it demonized as an emissary of Satan.  Instead we find heroic dogs like Lassie and Rin Tin Tin.  Not so with the cat.  And because the relationship between cats and their humans has been so confusing, so unpredictable, it is easy to blame the mysterious and sinister cat for unexplained problems and maladies.  Everyone likes to find a reason for tragedy and misfortune, and for much of the last several centuries, the cat was a believable culprit.

Dr Cathy Lund

Cathy Lund, DVM, owns and operates City Kitty Veterinary Care for Cats, a cat practice located in Providence, RI. She is also the board president and founder of the Companion Animal Foundation, a statewide, veterinary-based nonprofit organization that helps low-income pet owners afford essential veterinary care. She lives in Providence, and serves on several architectural and preservation commissions in the city, and is on the board of directors of WRNI, RI’s own NPR station. But her favorite activity is to promote the countless virtues of the “purr-fect” pet, the cat!

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