There's evidence that humans have lived alongside cats for around 12,000 years—but that doesn't mean we know what's going on in those fuzzy little heads of theirs. From the mysteries behind their meows to what all that purring is about, we're breaking down some myths about our feline companions, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.
1. Misconception: Cats communicate with each other by meowing.
When you hear a cat meow, it’s natural to assume that they’re “speaking” to you the same way they’d speak to a fellow feline. But meowing is actually a pretty ingenious part of cats’ self-domestication.
Adult cats don’t meow at each other (during mating season they do yowl at each other, but that’s a whole other thing). Kittens meow at their moms, but that stops in adulthood. Cats usually communicate with each other using their sense of smell, often by rubbing against things or marking areas with their urine. They also use physical cues, like tail position, to communicate. A “tail up” position is basically a cat’s version of nodding to a peer, indicating friendly intent and often leading to a physical greeting.
Cats actually meow to talk to their humans. After cats domesticated themselves thousands of years ago, they eventually realized that meowing is a great way to get people’s attention—and to manipulate us into doing what they want.
2. Misconception: Cats want to kill your baby.
As any old wife will tell you, if you have a newborn, you better keep your cat away from it. The sneaky beasts will climb into a baby’s crib, and then, motivated by either the scent of milk on the baby’s breath or sheer jealousy that they’re no longer the cutest member of the family, the cat will steal the child’s breath ... according to a misconception that’s been going around since at least the 17th century, anyway.
Fortunately for cat lovers—and parents of newborns—cats obviously can’t actually steal a baby’s breath. A cat may climb into a baby’s crib, but not to kill them. If anything, they just want to curl up next to something warm. That’s not to say accidents can’t happen; your safest bet is probably still to keep your cat away from any tiny sleeping humans. But you don’t need to worry about a pet hell-bent on ending your child’s life.
3. Misconception: Cats don’t care about human beings.
Cats are often viewed as cold-hearted creatures incapable of giving their owners the love and affection of a dog. But despite what the cat-hater in your life may claim, cats do get attached to their owners. And not just because they know you’ll crack open a can of food—many cats really do see their owners as part of their family, which is really saying something, since most wild felines are solitary animals.
Just because a cat doesn’t run to the door to greet you like an enthusiastic puppy every time you come home doesn’t mean they don't like having you around. Cats have their own ways of expressing their feelings toward their humans. Some cats headbutt—or “headbunt,” if we want to get technical—and knead their paws on their humans to mark them as their territory.
No matter how much they like you, though, there’s still a chance your cat would eat your corpse. That is, unfortunately, not a misconception, but maybe we could write it off as the ultimate sign of wanting to be close to you.
4. Misconception: Black cats are less likely to be adopted.
Black cats do have a rough reputation in some quarters, with many cultures saying they're harbingers of bad luck. In June of 1233, Pope Gregory IX even described a heretical ritual where black cats were an incarnation of Satan. It’s thought that their ability to blend in with the shadows made them seem spooky.
You might have heard that all these preconceptions about dark-furred felines give them a harder time getting adopted, but that isn’t quite right. Black cats do have higher-than-average euthanasia numbers, but this isn’t because of the so-called “black cat bias” that makes people opt for lighter animals. According to a 2013 study by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, black cats also have high adoption rates. The reason black cats have both high euthanasia rates and high adoption rates is actually pretty simple: It’s a really common color, meaning there are often more black cats in shelters through sheer probability.
People do make assumptions about cats based on their color, though. We tend to perceive orange cats as friendlier, while white cats are viewed as more shy. Calicos, meanwhile, have a reputation for being pretty nasty. But a 2012 study in the journal Anthrozoos debunked the idea that a cat’s color affects its personality. If you have a purebred cat, its breed is a better indicator of how it will act. So just because you have an orange cat doesn’t mean it will automatically want to be your best friend.
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5. Misconception: Cats hate to be touched.
Speaking of feline friendliness, not all cats will swat your hand if you try to touch them. In 2013, media outlets misinterpreted a study about cat stress that was published in the journal Physiology & Behavior and claimed that cats hated to be petted. The study reported that 13 cats simply “tolerated” being pet and showed more stress than the other cats in the study. Though the media used that data to say that petting cats stresses them out, it wasn’t accurate. As one of the study’s authors explained, “Cats are in no way generally stressed when they are stroked. It depends much more on the situation and the character of the individual animal.”
According to the study, which wasn’t actually focused on the impact of petting, only four of the 120 cats involved actually disliked petting. In general, cats are sensitive to touch, so they may react negatively if they’re already stressed or if you dare touch them in a spot they don’t like. But for the most part, research shows that cats like being petted.
6. Misconception: Purring equals happiness.
If you’re petting a cat and it’s purring nonstop, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s happy. Contrary to popular belief, cats purr for many reasons. They could be hungry or stressed or not feeling well. So if your cat starts purring on the way to the vet, you can safely assume it hasn’t fallen in love with its routine vaccination schedule.
According to one theory, cats may actually purr to improve their bone density, and perhaps to help repair bones. It’s thought that the low, steady vibrations help stimulate their muscles and bones without costing the cat too much energy.
7. Misconception: Cats always land on their feet.
Cats are good jumpers, and they do have a knack for sticking a landing. Thanks to their “righting reflex,” they can rotate quickly in mid-air in an attempt to land safely. But cats can’t always land on their feet—and they won’t necessarily walk away from a fall without a scratch.
According to an analysis by the New York City Animal Medical Center, height affects a cat’s ability to safely land a fall. A higher fall height actually meant a cat was more likely to get away with minor injuries, perhaps because it gave the cat enough time to right itself. A more recent study found that while there were fewer limb fractures in high falls, there was also more thoracic trauma, so there’s clearly some risk in both scenarios.
8. Misconception: Cats can’t swim.
Most cats can swim. Animal behaviorists think the most likely reason cats dislike water is because they don’t like having wet fur, which weighs them down and makes it harder to escape predators. Water can also make a cat cold and put it at risk of hypothermia, depending on environmental conditions.
A large pool of water is an unfamiliar sight for most cats, which may also explain why they prefer solid ground. But cats—like nearly every type of mammal—can swim when necessary. Some cat breeds, such as the Maine Coon and Bengal, are even known to occasionally swim for fun.
9. Misconception: Outdoor cats are happier and healthier.
Despite what a well-meaning cat person may say, outdoor cats are not necessarily happier than indoor ones. In fact, letting a cat outside unsupervised drastically shortens its lifespan. According to the Animal Humane Society, the average lifespan of an outdoor cat is 10 to 12 years shorter than an indoor cat’s. Wandering outside puts them at a higher risk for diseases and parasites, poison, and traffic-related injuries and deaths. It’s also really bad for native wildlife.
According to the American Bird Conservancy, outdoor cats kill around 2.4 billion birds every year in the U.S. Feral cats aren’t the only ones decimating native bird populations—even the sweetest, cuddliest pet can be a killer. And because cats hunt for reasons other than just scoring some food, giving your pet a big lunch before letting it outdoors won’t necessarily stop it from snatching some fresh prey.
If you do keep your cat indoors, though, it’s important to provide it with enrichment. That can include personal attention, toys, and, most highly prized of all, empty cardboard boxes.
10. Misconception: Cats can’t be trained.
Cats actually can be trained to do things like walk on a leash, come when called, shake hands, and even use a toilet. If you have a flair for showmanship, you can even train your cat to do agility competitions. Training a cat is a bit different than training a dog, though: It will require a lot of patience and positive reinforcement, so it’s best to start stocking up on their favorite treats.
It’s actually good to keep your cats active and mentally stimulated. You’ve probably heard that cats are an easier pet than dogs because they require less attention. But you really shouldn’t just ignore a cat. They need engagement, too. According to the shelter Paws Chicago, cats need at least 15 to 30 minutes of enrichment twice a day. So while you may not have to take them for a walk first thing in the morning like you would with a dog, you shouldn’t leave them to their own devices all day long. You can even buy toys that stimulate natural instincts to hunt, climb, and scratch.
11. Misconception: All cats are nocturnal.
As any cat owner will tell you, it’s pretty common to hear them scampering around the house during the dead of night, or to get woken up by a furry face nudging your head demanding food or pets. But these nighttime zoomies probably aren’t because midnight is primetime for kitties.
The ancestors of your house cat were crepuscular, meaning most active around dusk and dawn. These wild cats evolved to hunt in the desert, and dusk and dawn were the ideal times to catch prey while avoiding the blazing sun.
As to whether your cat shares this preference, studies have been remarkably mixed, variously suggesting cats are nocturnal, crepuscular, or diurnal (that is, on a roughly human schedule, with more activity during the day and more sleep occurring at night).
Part of this variety is because cats are quite opportunistic—a cat hunting diurnal songbirds might keep different hours than one hunting nocturnal rodents, for example. But a recent study of indoor cats found that they had less activity in the middle of the day and night, and more in the morning and evening, suggesting they tend to be crepuscular themselves.
12. Misconception: You should declaw your cat.
If your cat lets out energy by scratching furniture, don’t declaw it. The practice is much more intense than a thorough nail trim, and can lead to some horrible side effects. It’s so harmful that some countries, states, and cities have even banned the practice. When a cat is declawed, the last bone of each of its toes is removed. Cats that have been declawed have a harder time walking, since they’re basically missing the tip of each toe. They’re also vulnerable to chronic pain, either caused by their mutilated paws or having to change their gait in an attempt to move comfortably. Declawed cats are also more likely to misbehave: A 2017 study found that declawed cats were more likely to bite and not use a litterbox.