Feline Myths

Some of the most popular myths are easily debunked

Published: January 06, 2017

staring cat DeGioia
Photo by Phyllis DeGioia

It’s no secret… cats are mysterious creatures. With all of the rumors, stories, and old wives tales about cats that are carried on from generation to generation, it can be hard to sort out what is true and what isn’t. Sorting out the truth from fiction may seem inconsequential, after all, does it really matter how many lives cats have or what they mean when they meow a certain way? You may be surprised to learn that there’s danger in believing some of these myths, and not knowing the difference between the truth and fiction could result in a real lack of awareness about some important issues. 

Some of the most popular myths are easily debunked: 

Cow’s milk is good for cats 
The majority of cats (like many humans) lack the enzyme needed to properly digest the lactose in cow’s milk. Even though they may love the taste of milk, chances are they don’t also love having diarrhea after drinking it. Diarrhea can be dangerous because your cat can become dehydrated, so even though kitty loves a dish of milk or cream, offering her this ‘treat’ can actually harm her. Orphaned kittens should receive a feline milk replacer, as store-bought cow’s milk doesn’t contain enough of some vital nutrients that kittens need. 

Cats will steal a baby’s breath 
Babies are warm. Cats like warm things. Some people believe that cats are attracted to the smell of milk on the baby’s breath but it’s far more likely that they’re attracted to the warmth of the baby’s body. It shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a cat would enjoy cuddling up to a toasty warm sleeping infant. Babies are small and weak so it’s possible that a cat could snuggle up too closely to a baby’s face and suffocate it as the infant wouldn’t be strong enough to move the cat away. If you have a new baby and a cat in the house, it’s not a good idea to let kitty use the baby as its own personal space heater unless you are closely monitoring the cat's contact with the baby at all times. 

Cats use their whiskers for balance 
Vibrissae, or whiskers as they’re more commonly known, are extremely sensitive, having hundreds of nerve cells per whisker. When vibrissae brush against an object, they send a message to the brain about the animal's distance from the object. Although vibrissae don't help your cat when he's doing his best Flying Wallenda impersonation, they do help him to navigate safely in dim light and small spaces. 

Cats always land on their feet 
If you’ve ever tried to give a cat medication, put on a harness, or stuff one into a carrier for a trip to the vet, you’ve likely seen evidence that they all seem to have trained under Houdini at some point. Cats are able to twist and turn their bodies and escape from even the most seemingly secure bonds. Their flexibility gives them the ability to quickly right themselves when they happen to fall backward. Even though they usually do land on their feet, there’s nothing magical about it this ability and sometimes they’re not able to get turned around quickly enough to prevent injuries. 

All cats hate water 
No matter the species, preferences are a very individual thing. Some cats will put all of their innate Houdini talents into full effect when you try to get them into the bathtub. Some will happily join you in the shower, playing in the spray and chasing shampoo bubbles down the drain. There are even some breeds of cat that are actually known to love swimming as much as a Labrador retriever. Letting your cat play in the sink, shower or even a kiddie pool in the backyard won’t harm him as long as the water isn’t too deep for him to stand and he can easily get out of the water on his own. Even if your kitty loves to swim laps, considering the tiny razors on the end of each toe, letting him splish-splash while you're taking a bath is still probably not a good idea for you. 

Cats need to have a litter before being spayed 
There is much evidence, both medical and otherwise which shows that spayed and neutered pets are healthier and tend to live longer. Some people believe that a ‘fixed’ cat will become fat and lazy, but the truth is pets become obese because of overfeeding by their owners and lack of exercise. While it’s true that witnessing the miracle of birth is a great learning experience, there is no need to let your pet become pregnant in order to share that lesson with your children. There are plenty of educational videos and other materials you can use to educate them without using your pet for show-n-tell. Even if you are able to place the kittens or puppies in homes, you can’t control what other people will do with them after the cuddly kitten and playful puppy novelty wears off. Animal shelters are full of surrendered and abandoned pets waiting for homes, and millions of healthy animals end up being euthanized every year. The most important thing to remember is that spaying and neutering saves lives

Pregnant women should avoid cats because they will make them and their unborn baby sick 
In general, contact with healthy, mature cats will not make a pregnant woman or her unborn child sick. The time for caution and concern is when a pregnant woman is exposed to a young cat infected with Toxoplasma for the very first time it its life. The parasitic disease known as Toxoplasmosis is one of the most common parasitic diseases found in nearly all warm-blooded animals, including pets and humans. Cats become infected by eating infected rodents, birds, and other small animals. The only way for your cat to infect you with Toxoplasma is if you are handling the feces (or any object that has been in contact with the cat’s feces) of a cat who has recently (within a few weeks) been infected for the FIRST TIME without washing your hands afterward. Humans are much more likely to become infected by forgetting to wash their hands after gardening, eating or touching raw meat, unwashed fruits and vegetables, and unpasteurized dairy products (such as goat’s milk) than from petting cats or scooping the litter box. There are many simple ways for pregnant women and others to avoid exposure to Toxoplasmosis that don’t include throwing the cat out with the cat litter. 

Cats that live indoors don’t need vaccinations or regular veterinary visits 
Certainly a persuasive argument can be made that cats who live indoors usually enjoy longer, healthier lives. After all, they don’t face the same daily hazards that outdoor cats do: predators, competition for resources, traffic, extreme weather, anti-cat neighbors, etc. But, indoor kitties do still have to deal with hereditary/congenital diseases, poor diets, lack of exercise, and other issues. No matter where your cat spends most of its time, receiving regular check-ups and any vaccines (at the very least rabies) that might be indicated will help keep her in tip-top shape for all of her proverbial nine lives. 

Speaking of nine lives… 
Ever wonder where that particular myth comes from? There doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence that proves when or where it began, but we know it’s been around for a few centuries as William Shakespeare made reference to it in Romeo and Juliet, which was written around 1595. One theory posits that this particular piece of folklore was perpetuated by witnesses to the cat’s amazing dexterity, which helps it to “cheat death” and survive mishaps and accidents that would likely prove fatal to less agile creatures. The number of lives and background stories vary from culture to culture, but this myth is probably one of the oldest, and most enduring of them all. 

Cats will likely always be thought of as mysterious, but knowing the facts about some of these more prevalent myths can help keep you and your cat healthier. As always, if you have any questions or concerns regarding how these and other myths might affect you or your feline friend, don’t hesitate to speak to your veterinarian. 


You do not have permission to view this document: [7762839]!

VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email

Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.