How many lives does a cat have?

Posted by Oct 31, 2017 |

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Author Amira

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I’m Amira, founder and editor at Cattention.

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The article in 30 seconds:

  • Cats do not really have nine lives. This popular saying is just a myth, and the number even varies in different cultures, traditions and different countries.
  • Cats only have one life to live just like the rest of us.
  • The real origin of this proverb is a bit cloudy but there are seven reasons why people believe that cats have nine lives.
  • Their incredible senses, amazing grooming routine, climbing ability, unique sense of balance, instinctive righting reflex, good flexibility and agility, and superior hunting skills could all have led people to think that cats have multiple lives.

If you have ever heard the expression: ‘Cats have nine lives.’, you are not alone. It is a very famous phrase that has been passed down from generation to generation.

However, have you ever actually stopped and truly thought about the meaning of it or what’s behind it? When you do, you will realize that it is not a simple, single question but quite like a series of them:

  • Do cats really have nine lives? Or is this just a myth?
  • Why exactly nine? And, what does it mean?
  • Where does this come from? Is there any truth behind it?
  • Or, if it is just a saying, how many lives does a cat have?

While many people know all about cats, they often omit this commonly known saying from their knowledge. Now, it is time to reveal the truth and see the facts behind this proverb. This article will share everything you need to know about this age-old phrase.

Do cats have nine lives?

Throughout history, cats have been associated with something mysterious or even magical. While many legends have been created, one of the most mysterious one is about their unusual endurance. From times immemorial, they are said to have nine lives.

Cats might be a little mysterious but they obviously do not have nine lives, do they?

Of course, the answer is no. Cats do not really have nine lives. They are not immortal and there is no scientific evidence that would suggest that cats have nine lives.

So, to your surprise: the saying that ‘Cats have nine lives.’ is just a myth. However, one that believes in reincarnation may say that cats have more than one life, but then not necessarily only nine. Right?


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How many lives does a cat have?

Now, this is a good question. If you have international relatives or friends you can even get in a playful argument debating the amount of lives that a cat has. Why is that?

Different cultures different numbers

According to the myth, cats have multiple lives. However, not everyone in the world believes that cats have nine lives. The number varies in different cultures.

While in some areas the magical number is nine, in others it is seven because of the difference in the traditions and mythologies of the different countries. For instance, in most places a cat is said to have nine lives but in countries like Spain, Brazil, Greece, Turkey or Arab countries cats ‘only’ have seven lives according to their particular beliefs.

So, what is the truth? How many lives does a cat have?

In all reality, cats, of course, do not have nine lives. Neither do they have seven. As the science suggests, we can say without any doubt that cats only have one life to live just like the rest of us.

Therefore, the popular belief about cats and their multiple lives is just a myth that has been persisted over centuries and passed down from generation to generation. And now, with this all cleared up we can discuss the reason behind it as well as we can get into details about its origin.

Why do they say cats have 9 lives?

If cats have only one life to live just like us, then why do people say cats have nine lives? Do they really believe that, or it is just an expression? While you may think that it is said because people like to believe in magic, there is actually some strong basis behind this age-old legend.

Cats have always been revered animals: partly, because of their unnaturally good luck, and partly due to their daring adventures and innate ability to cheat death with their agility.

How many times have you seen a cat standing in front of a moving car, jumping out of a window or fighting a dog or other animal and just walking away as if nothing even happened? There is no other animal with such a reputation to be resilient in such situations.

While this is one of the main causes behind this proverb, there are actually seven secret reasons why people believe that cats have nine lives.

Cats have great senses that help them stay away from any harm.

Cats have incredible senses, from sight, to smell or hearing. Their outstanding vision allows them to see the environment clearly (even at night), their strong sense of smell helps them to identify objects, their rotating ears enable them to hear the sounds of any danger, and their amazing touch receptors located all over their body help them map their surroundings and prepare themselves for danger.

Even though they are voraciously curious and often jeopardize their lives by doing things they should not (like wandering around at night when predators are out, jumping onto and from balconies, climbing in-between trees or walls) their extremely good senses help them escape dangers in many ways.

Cats are less prone to diseases than other animals because of their amazing grooming routine.

Cats are known as amazingly clean creatures. They spend as much as 50% of their waking time grooming themselves. However, apart from cleanliness, grooming has a great number of other purposes.

Cats lick themselves to cool down when the weather is too warm as well as they groom themselves to clean away odor-causing agents as a protection against predators. Grooming also aids in getting rid of parasites (like fleas), relieving stress, stimulating blood flow and cleansing injuries, therefore preventing infections. As a result, cats are typically less susceptible to diseases.

Cats are good at escaping dangers due to their wonderful ability of climbing.

Cats have the ability to climb very high. They are equipped with extremely strong extendable claws, and strong backs and hind legs that enable them to jump from the ground, hitch themselves halfway up the wall then get on to the roof.

While this ability is a good approach to watch for prey, it is also very handy when there is a need of escaping predators or other dangerous situations.

Cats have a unique sense of balance that helps them avoid any accidents.

Cats not only have great senses and astonishing physique but also have extremely good sense of balance. With their flexible spine and specially adapted shoulder blades, they can easily walk along a one-inch thick wall or wire without even shaking.

Their tails, highly developed inner ears, and their super-efficient vestibular system also provide them with excellent balance and help them avoid any accident while climbing, walking on thin lines (like fences) or vaulting over things.

Cats use their instinctive righting reflex that enables them to land on their feet (almost) always.

Cats have always been known to fall off impressive heights and still survive thanks to their ability to manage to safely land on their feet. The reason behind this is their righting reflex which is basically an ability that enables them to twist and turn around their bodies very quickly in the air taking the right position to land right on their feet during a fall.

This is quite a complex maneuver that might be necessary several times depending on the position and height. In fact, height matters: too little and the cat will not have enough time to correct her fall, or too high and the result can be deadly. Though, their extremely good sense of balance paired with their flexible body and their righting reflex allow them to escape dangerous falls without much injuries most of the times.

Cats have extremely good flexibility and agility that allows them to survive life-threatening situations.

Cats are also known for their flexibility and agility. Their flexible backbones and ligaments with their light structure help them to eliminate severe injuries from many types of accidents.

Moreover, they have quick decision-making skills and are able to react to danger incredibly fast because of their superior reflexes and great dexterity which definitely helps them to survive life-threatening situations.

Cats are superior hunters thanks to their patience, natural instincts, and climbing ability.

Cats have natural instincts to stalk their prey, acknowledge their weaknesses and avoid larger animals. Their great senses help them observe their surroundings, detect objects, and identify if something is dangerous.

They also have the ability to position their body in a protective position in the event of danger. Such a lifestyle and anatomy significantly increase the chances of survival.

All in all, there are enough reasons for people to believe that cats have more than one lives. Their surviving skills, exceptional senses, abilities to land safely when jumping from high places and their aptitudes to escape dangerous catastrophes could have easily led people to think that they have multiple lives.


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Where did the saying cats have 9 lives come from?

Putting cats’ great senses, physics, and survival skills aside, now let’s focus on the origin of this age-old myth. Since the proverb is known all over the world for centuries, it must have ancient origins one would say. However, the real origin is a bit cloudy.


While it is difficult to pinpoint an exact date, there are some written evidence:

  • The earliest written reference has shown up in a short English novel by William Baldwin (Beware the Cat) in 1561 and stated that a witch can take a cat’s body nine times to escape death.
  • William Shakespeare also refers to the myth in his play: Romeo and Juliet in 1597 in the scene when Mercutio replies to Tybalt: ‘Good king of cats, nothing but one of your nine lives’ aiming to take on of his nine lives.
  • In 1732, a book of a compilation of proverbs – titled Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs by Thomas Fuller – also mentions the cats’ multiple lives: “A cat has nine lives and a woman has nine cats’ lives.”.
  • There is also an old English proverb of unknown origin about cats that states: “A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays, and for the last three he stays”.


Although the nine lives myth is mentioned many times in literature, it only implies that this was already an established expression and should be traced back further in history.

For example, the myth can date back to the ancient Egypt where cats were sacred and divine with spiritual powers that were worshiped as if they were Gods. The Egyptian sun God: Atum-Ra was believed to take the form of a cat and give birth to eight other Gods representing nine lives in one creator. Perhaps, this is how the myth started.

There is also a theory that the saying could also have originated in ancient China where cats were treated well and number nine was considered to be a lucky number. They even featured this number in the mythology of Chinese dragons.

In ancient times, cats were divine and number nine was believed to be mystical becoming a center piece even of some religions. Cats have continued to be worshiped until the Middle Ages when in Europe they were no longer regarded as sacred but was regarded as evil.

Legend dictates that they were even thrown out from high towers (fortunately, many of them survived and walked away unscathed) as a strange but popular ritual. While this cruel practice ended in 1817, the event is still marked to this day with an annual cat festival in the Belgian town where only toy cats are used these days honoring the cats’ history.


These so-called miracles of survival have become the science of the 19th century when the cats’ remarkable ability was finally explained. In 1894, a French physiologist: Etienne-Jules Marey has conducted an experiment with the use of a camera, and took a series of photographs (60 images per second) that captured the process of a cat falling.

While this film has finally demonstrated how a cat rights herself and lands on her feet to lessen the impact surviving remarkable heights, the myth has endured for so long because of the different beliefs – be it a sacred God or a magical number.


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What does ‘cats have 9 lives’ mean? – Why 9 and why cats anyway?

So, why do we say ‘the nine lives of cats’? Why not three, or six, or even more? And, why is it associated with cats and not any other animal?

Why nine?

Well, there is a lot of speculation about the number nine. Since the phrase itself is an ancient one when magic was popular and nine was considered magical and mystical for centuries, this could be the reason why nine was the most appropriate.

Some people think it is related to the nine Gods of Atum-Ra in ancient Egypt, while others point out that ancient Greeks believed the number nine was a mystic number which was referred to as the Trinity of all Trinities that invokes tradition and religion. Also, the number may have come from China where number nine has always been referred to as the lucky one as it is associated with masculinity and strength.

Apart from these examples, number nine has been used in many religions and regions around the world. So, understandably nine is a mystical and magical number, but what does it have to do with cats?

Why cats?

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that cats have exceptional senses and some pretty extraordinary skills. Cats indeed have hardy nature. They are independent and intelligent who have learned how to benefit from people while knowing a way out of any situations and adapting to any living conditions. They even meow to communicate.

Cats are also great analysts. They instinctively feel when there is a chance of an open battle, and when it is wiser to retreat: they attack when the enemy is not larger than twice their size but climb a tree if the opponent is more dangerous.

It is also known that they have the ability of self-recovery as purring accelerates the regeneration of (bone) tissues. So, no wonder they were both been feared and worshiped for centuries.

The meaning

All in all, as regard of the meaning that ‘Cats have nine lives’ we should state that the proverb does not literally mean that a cat has indeed multiple lives. The statement is actually about their lucky nature, longevity, and tendency to survive dangerous incidents. And, as they are thought to be magical creatures for centuries, number nine – a mystical and magical number – is the most appropriate when it comes to cats and their secret lives.


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Bottom line

Throughout centuries people have been astonished at the hardiness of cats. They are indeed unique. They have the ability to land on their feet, stay away from any harm or survive life-threatening situations.

It is no surprise that it inspires fascination to believe that cats have nine lives. However, no matter what is the origin or its meaning, it is still just a myth. Cats do not have nine lives. However, they are pretty incredible at preserving the one they have.