• Adele Danskin

Are Black Cats Bad Luck?

Updated: Mar 22, 2019

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.. 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.”

It’s not all bad for the black cat though. Black cats aboard ships at sea are a longstanding tradition associated with good luck. From pirate ships to naval vessels, cats have been welcomed on board because they keep the rodents away from the ship’s food supply and provide companionship for an isolated crew. Unlike in the United States, where they typically have negative connotations, other nations—like the United Kingdom and Japan—believe that black cats can bring prosperity, bless a marriage, ensure good harvests, and even help bring success to a theatre production.” 

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 colour of cat. Why a specific colour 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. 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 colour of his coat.”

Luckily, in some cultures the perception of the black cat began to change and it went from being seen as bad luck to good luck in countries like Scotland who still regard a strange black cat on your porch as a sign of prosperity to come. In England, fishermen’s wives would keep black cats in their homes while their husbands were away in the belief that these animals would prevent danger from occurring to their husbands while they were off at sea.

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 colour of the cat that walked across the path in front of you.”

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