Cat Myths: Stalking the Truth Behind Modern Superstitions

Cat Myths Debunked

Earlier in April, PugetPets debunked some common myths about dogs. In this post, we’ll take a look at some equally common misconceptions about cats. Cats have long been the subject of people’s superstitions, ranging from black cats being bad luck to black cats being good luck (for fishermen at sea, anyway!). These days we may be more enlightened than our ancestors from the Middle Ages who burned cats as witches, but many cat myths still abound. How many misconceptions do you have about your feline friends? Find out, as we stalk the truth about common cat myths!

Myth #1: Pregnant Women Shouldn’t Have Cats.

Some cat myths have their origins in a grain of truth and this is one. Cat feces may carry the single-celled parasite that causes the disease toxoplasmosis, which can be harmful to a fetus, should a pregnant woman contract the disease. This does not mean that a pregnant woman should not live with or pet a cat. Petting doesn’t lead to toxoplasmosis (or pregnancy…ahem…). To reduce contact with cat feces, a pregnant woman should wear rubber gloves when cleaning a litter box, or better yet, she should have someone else do that chore (and why not take advantage of that, mamas-to-be?). Keeping the litter box clean will help reduce the likelihood of infection, so scoop daily!

In addition to taking care around your cat’s box, also take care in outdoor areas cats might use as litter. If you dig in the garden while pregnant, be sure to wear gloves and wash your hands after gardening to avoid exposure to infected soil. Raw meat is also a potential source of the parasite, so use safe handling practices in the kitchen. There is no need to re-home the family cat if you are pregnant. Taking some simple precautions will virtually eliminate your risk of contracting toxoplasmosis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “You do not have to give up your cat.”

Myth #2: Cats are Dangerous to Babies.

We’ve covered pregnancy, but what about after the baby arrives? A common belief in the Middle Ages held that cats were witches in animal form, slinking about to perform all manner of dastardly deeds. Cats were even said to suck a baby’s breath out at night if left in the same room with an infant. Now, we understand that this was probably an explanation for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). But does this creepiest of cat myths still persist in some form? Surprisingly, it might.

The Smothering Myth

We found lots of well-meaning advice about keeping cats from babies’ rooms to prevent babies from being “smothered” by cats sleeping on them. The reality is, a cat is no more likely to smother a baby than the infant’s own blanket. In fact, introducing your cat to your baby and your baby’s scent is one of the most important measures you can take to ensure that your cat accepts the new family member, so keeping them entirely apart isn’t advisable. Whether you let your cat sleep with your baby unattended is up to you, but rest assured your cat has no breath-sucking agenda!

Scratches Happen

If you have a cantankerous cat or an active, curious baby (or a cantankerous baby and an active, curious cat, for that matter!) the occasional cat-scratch may be an issue. Supervising baby-cat quality time can help prevent this. Cat scratches are prone to infection, so if your baby does get a swipe from your cat, treat the scratch and keep a close eye on it. A bite that breaks the skin should be treated by a medical professional. If your cat scratches your baby, resist the urge to scold or hit your cat. This only raises the animal’s already elevated stress level, causing your cat to have further bad associations with your baby. Instead, simply remove your cat from the stressful situation and manage future cat-baby interactions to prevent further instances.

For babies and toddlers, interactions with animals can teach important lessons and provide tons of entertainment, as well as being one of a child’s first non-parental loving relationships. In the long run, the benefits of allowing your cat and baby to form a bond will outweigh the risks. Lots of good advice for ensuring your baby’s and your cat’s mutual safety and well-being can be found here.

Myth #3: All Cats Love Catnip.

We generally believe that catnip is a cat’s best friend, but this is one of those cat myths that is only partially true. In fact, only 70 to 80 percent of all cats are affected by the active ingredient in catnip. That ingredient is an essential oil called nepetalactone, which is found in the leaves and stems of the plant. When a cat inhales the oil from the leaves of the plant, (s)he experiences a harmless, non-addictive “high” that mimics cat pheromone and can last for as long as 10 minutes. Whether or not your cat is attracted to catnip is determined by genetics. Susceptibility to the catnip “high” is an inherited trait. In addition, not all catnip is really catnip. Some products marketed as catnip are actually catmint, a related plant to which even fewer cats react. So test your cat on several brands, choosing the freshest leaves possible. If your cat still doesn’t seem to react, he or she may just not be into it. For a more detailed exploration of cats and catnip, check out our May 2017 post.

Myth #4: Milk is Good For Cats.

A saucer of milk for the cat, right? We’ve all seen the cute pictures in children’s storybooks and milk ads. But pour this one down the drain of popular cat myths. Milk is not good for cats. This doesn’t mean your cat doesn’t like it, but the fact is the majority of cats are lactose intolerant. So while it may taste good to them going down, they might not feel good afterwards. Cats fed milk are likely to suffer from a cranky tummy and diarrhea. Before you argue about whose turn it is to clean the litter box, spare your cat the milk! Instead of milk, keep plenty of clean water on hand for your cat to drink. Cats in the wild get most of their hydration from eating their prey. This natural tendency can make even domestic cats infrequent water drinkers. For this reason, also feed wet food at least once a day to supplement your feline’s high water requirements. If you have to feed an unweaned baby kitty, always use specially prepared kitten formula provided by your veterinarian, never cow’s milk. But relax, cats, you can still have that liquid from the tuna can (whew!).

Myth #5: Declawing is Harmless.

Declawing is one of the worst cat myths ever. But despite the medical facts, the notion still prevails that declawing a cat is something akin to having a manicure. In fact, according to the Humane Society of the United States, “[d]eclawing traditionally involves the amputation of the last bone of each toe. If performed on a human being, it would be like cutting off each finger at the last knuckle.” Declawing severely restricts a cat’s mobility and ability to engage in natural behaviors. It prevents climbing, scratching and a variety of self-defense behaviors. The inability to scratch may also make your cat more likely to bite when (s)he feels threatened.

In addition, the procedure often results in long-term negative health consequences. According to the Humane Society, “[r]emoving claws changes the way a cat’s foot meets the ground and can cause pain similar to wearing an uncomfortable pair of shoes.” Other possible consequences of declawing include chronic pain, tissue death, lameness, nerve damage and bone spurs. Some of these may not appear obvious, as cats tend to hide their pain as a natural self-defense mechanism. Pain when scratching in their litter box can cause some cats to stop using it. You can read the entire Humane Society article on declawing here.

Cats can, for the most part, be taught to restrict their scratching to permitted areas such as scratching posts and boards. Provide lots of these scratch-friendly areas around your home. Use Sticky Paws tape or cat-deterrent sprays to help steer cats away from furniture. Even consider accepting a little couch-arm attrition as the price of feline companionship. Cats have claws. If you want a pet without claws, don’t get a cat. Declawing is not harmless. That’s one modern cat myth that belongs in the Middle Ages!