We’ve all heard it: the myths, the folklore, the urban legends. Maybe our superstitious friend or family member tells a story of a black cat who crossed someone’s path and that person died, inexplicably, within 24 hours. Or maybe it’s a well-meaning but misguided co-worker who warns their pregnant colleague that they should rehome their white cat, because white cats steal the breath of babies.

But these myths are just that — myths, with no scientific truth to them. So let’s get real about black and white kitties.

BACK TO BLACK

Halloween approaches, and that means spooky decorations are everywhere: pumpkins carved with scary faces, ghost and skeleton decorations, pictures of black cats with their fur standing up…

Wait. What? Since when are black cats who are scared or feeling threatened considered spooky?

Well, since ancient Greece, apparently. According to Greek mythology, the goddess Hera transformed her servant into a black cat as a punishment. The servant then became the assistant to Hecate, the underworld goddess of witchcraft and death.

The association of black cats with witchcraft and evil grew from there. The Norman and Germanic believed a black cat crossing your path brought bad luck and that a black cat was a sign that a death would soon occur.  By the 13th and 14th centuries, the fear and hatred of especially black cats was so strong that the popes of the Catholic Church began calling for their extermination. (It’s believed the Black Plaque worsened as cat populations declined, leading to 50 million deaths.)

However, not all cultures saw black cats as evil creatures. The Celts believed a black cat crossing your path was a sign of good luck. But, as Gede Parma, author of “Ecstatic Witchcraft” noted, “the blessings of the old religions become the curses of the new.”

Here in America, we have largely adopted this negative view of black cats, given our history of equating the black cat with black magic (think Salem Witch Trials). In fact, out of fear for black cats’ safety, many sanctuaries refuse to adopt black cats out too close to Halloween and owners of black cats are often cautioned not to let their cats outdoors around the holiday. But the bias around black cats manifests in more subtle ways as well. Black cats tend to take longer to get adopted at shelters and are mistakenly thought to be more feral than cats of other colors.

 Of course, it could just be a matter of math, too. It is not a glitch in the matrix: black is actually the most common coat color among felines. The gene for expressing eumelanin—the pigment needed to make black fur—is dominant in black cats. According to research, black cats have an evolutionary advantage due to their natural camouflage. Plus, evidence suggests that they could be less prone to disease than other felines.  In terms of personality, black cats are just like other cats. They can be loving and sweet or demanding and aloof.

 

WHITE IS LIGHT

If black cats have long been associated with evil and darkness, it’s probably not surprising that white cats have often been viewed as the opposite. In may cultures, white cats have been seen as symbols of love, innocence and purity. The Norse goddess of love and fertility, Freya, had a chariot drawn by two white cats. Some Asian shops and restaurants set out statues of the white maneki-neko, which are believed to represent good things to come.

In today’s North America, however, we seem to believe in too much of a good thing. Perhaps that’s why the belief that a white cat in a home of a newborn will feel threatened by the infant’s purity and harm it prevails.  But in some Mediterranean countries, when a white cat takes a liking to a child, it is a sign that child will grow up to be a good person and achieve good things. 

Maybe people are unknowingly reacting to a much simpler reality. While black is the most common coat color for a cat, white is among the most rare. In fact, white cats make up only about 5% of the general population. Their white coat is due to the lack of melanin, a pigment that is responsible for giving color to hair. 

This lack of pigment can have a very real, scientific impact, however. Did you know that white cats do not tolerate prolonged exposure to sunlight? In fact, outdoor white cats are disproportionately diagnosed with skin cancer compared to cats with color in their coats. (At FUR, we’ve had to have two feral white cats’ ears amputated due to skin cancer!) 

There’s even a correlation between white cats and deafness. In white cats without blue eyes, about 17% of cats are born deaf. That percentage rises to 40% in white cats with one blue eye and to 65 to 85% in white cats with two blue eyes. Therefore, outdoor white cats with two blue eyes are much more likely to die younger, given their high likelihood of being deaf, which puts them at a disadvantage with predators, and their susceptibility for skin cancer.

 

BLACK, WHITE OR RAINBOW

Cats are more alike than not. Sure, this species tends to be more independent and aloof than other domesticated animals, but that doesn’t change their inherent worth, regardless of their fur color. All cats — black, white or rainbow — deserve kindness, respect and love. And we’re grateful that our fellow kitty fans (you!) think so as well!

9 thoughts on “WHAT’S IN A (FUR) COLOR?”

  1. Stumbled on this article while looking for fact based info to argue with in a facebook group for barn cats. There are a few there that say you should never place a light colored feral in a outdoor situation, because predators (namely coyotes) can see them easier. Everything ive found so far says coyotes hunt first and formost by smell, not sight.
    The info from this article about skin cancers is interesting though, and im going to research that further. I have one colony of almost 30 ferals that are mainly white or dilute colors. I just TNRed this colony end of 2023, and this maybe something I and their caretaker need to be on the look out for.
    It makes sense though. Thanks for the info! Looks like i have some research to do.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have never heard the one about light-colored cats being easier targets for coyotes. I will definitely research that one as well!

    1. Thank you for your comment! I’m glad you find our articles helpful. It’s so important to build a community where you feel at home!

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