Black Cats: The Superstitions and the Science

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science and Technology

    October is a month for spooky traditions that include scary stories, haunted houses and jack-o’-lanterns, to name a few. Folklore and superstitions about such things as a full moon, black crows, witches and black cats are all part of the festivities and fun leading to Halloween. The black cat is a popular one! Black cats became associated with evil and witchcraft in the Middle Ages.

    “We’re not quite sure why black cats were associated with witches except that they were very dark, mysterious creatures,” explained Leslie Lyons, PhD, a Gilbreath–McLorn endowed professor of comparative medicine in the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine. “The black cats were kind of elusive and around at night, all cats are around at night. And so while witches were persecuted, so were their cats. So, you kind of had a dual persecution going on.”

    The Lyons Lab is part of the Feline Genome Project, an international research effort focused on the improvement of genomic and genetic resources for the domestic cat.
    Lyons and her team in the Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Laboratory contributed to decades of genome DNA sequencing. Having a career focused on cats, Lyons has been captivated by black cats, having had a few of her own.

    “I just like the sleekness of their black, solid coat,” she said.

    Black cats and all colors of the domestic cat intrigue Lyons.

    “Kind of like moving artwork, in my view. Really, a fantastic creature.”

    With Halloween celebrations and decorating traditions, black cats are popular, but getting passed their wicked reputation is the challenge. That’s why October 27th is National Black Cat Day. And October is Black Cat Awareness Month, providing positive publicity to promote black cat adoptions.

    “Black cats are very interesting, in that they present one of the mutations that are probably associated with domestication,” said Lyons. “It’s something that occurred very early in the development of cats once people started using cats as vermin control. The mutation that makes a cat black is a simple two base pair deletion in a gene called, agouti. And what would be a normally brown tabby cat, where the stripes are black, now all the hair in between the stripes is black as well, so it looks like a solid black cat.”

    Lyons further explained how the appearance of black cats may not be what it seems.

    “Actually, all black cats probably still have their tabby stripes and sometimes you can see those when they’re laying in the light just perfectly.”

    Lyons said the mutation allows black cats to enjoy advantages for survival, but those advantages also led to centuries of disadvantages from haunting and lingering superstitions.

    “There’s the potential advantage of being able to hunt better at night,” said Lyons. “An all-black presentation may be a little more mysterious at night, it’s harder to see in the dark. Might surprise you a little bit more. And then also just the association with witches. And so that, hence, leads to the association with Halloween.”

    Other than the mutation, Lyons said you won’t find differences in how black cats behave compared to other domestic cats. In other words, there’s nothing witchy about them!

    “Actually, no difference in their behavior whether they’re black or whether they’re tabby or whether they’re orange whatsoever.”

    Lyons recently had groundbreaking research about domestic cats. Her team in the Feline Genetics and Comparative Medicine Laboratory discovered that cats are more genetically similar to humans than nearly any other mammal.

    “The cat genome is more similar to the human genome as far as its structure than the dog or the mouse, and the mouse and rats are common animal models.”

    Her work translates to human medicine. So cats, even black cats, may shed light on human diseases which can lead to new treatments for both humans and cats.

    Lyons supports the celebration of black cats on Halloween, because it promotes awareness of these fantastic creatures among us.

    “Hence, it’s a fantastic time to go out and adopt yourself a black cat,” she suggested.

    And why not! It is their month.

    “The black cats are kind of elusive. Suddenly, you realize the cat is there and it’s been part of your environment. It’s been watching you. It’s part of our niche now. It’s part of our lives.”