By Megan Sullivan
Many people perceive black cats to be bad luck. But is there any truth to this widespread superstition?
According to researchers and veterinarians, the answer is no.
“It’s completely culturally constructed and has no basis in anything,” says Dr. James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine.
Mythology and lore about black cats goes all the way back to Greek mythology, says Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian at the Belle Haven Animal Medical Centre in Washington, D.C., and a medical advisor for petMD. In one of the stories, Zeus’s wife Hera transformed a servant named Galinthias into a black cat as punishment for interfering with her plan to delay the birth of Heracles. Galinthias then became an attendant of Hecate, the goddess of magic, witchcraft, and death.
During the Middle Ages, black cats became associated with the devil, witches, witchcraft, and evil. Some people even believed that black cats assisted witches in their practice of magic and that witches could shape-shift into cat form. “There’s a long tradition in European witchcraft of associations between witches and animals, and that was very often a cat,” Serpell says. As fear and superstition spread throughout Europe, mass killings of black cats occurred.
As far back as the Romans, people also interpreted chance encounters with animals as indicators of future events, Serpell adds. For example, “a cat running across your path from right to left—if it was a black cat especially—would be an ominous thing,” he says.
While these stories and superstitions about black cats have been around for centuries, none of them are based on fact or reality, Nelson says. “Black cats have absolutely no difference in personality, health, or longevity than any other color of cat. Why a specific color of cat would be associated with bad luck for humans—you got me.”
Another urban legend suggests that satanic cults sacrifice black cats on Halloween. Out of fear of abuse, some animal shelters will not adopt out black cats in the weeks leading up to the holiday, Serpell says. Rather than feeding this myth and depriving black cats of the chance to find a new forever home, many shelters are simply extra cautious during the month of October.
“We try to be very cautious with adoptions going out at that time and make sure we are adopting out these cats to somebody who is indeed going to take this cat home and protect him, not persecute him because of the color of his coat,” Nelson says.
A black cat bringing someone bad luck is just as likely as a four-leaf clover bringing good luck, Nelson concludes. “Your luck is as you create it,” she says. “It has nothing to do with the color of the kitty that walked across the path in front of you.”