It’s that time of year when leaves change color and begin to fall (at least in other parts of the country), the days grow shorter, and black cats take on a more ominous significance than at other times of the year.
Do people still view black cats with suspicion?
You might think that old superstition that a black cat crossing a person’s path brings bad luck has fallen by the wayside in the 21st century, but shelters and rescue groups report that black cats and dogs are often the last to be adopted.
“Yes, black cats seem to stay longer, and black dogs, too, believe it or not, but mostly the cats,” says Gail DeYoung, animal services manager at Mission Viejo Animal Shelter. “I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be, but still, they seem to stay longer.”
Over the millennia, people have invested cats and dogs with all kinds of beliefs or notions, both positive and negative. Often, the belief is associated with the animal’s color or markings.
A Buddhist tradition holds that a home with a light-colored cat will be filled with silver; in other words, money will flow in. A dark-colored cat? Even better. That one brings gold.
In Japan, the image of a calico cat with a raised paw is said to bring good luck.
Many shopkeepers have a statue of the beckoning tricolor cat on their premises. A cat with a raised left paw welcomes customers; a cat with a raised right paw brings good fortune.
Tricolor cats are also believed to be protective against fires and fevers.
A Celtic legend recounts that when Mary couldn’t get the baby Jesus to fall asleep, she asked all the animals for help. Only a tabby kitten was able to quiet him, by curling up next to him and purring. As a reward, Mary declared that forever after, all tabby kittens would bear the letter M on their foreheads.
What about black cats?
Celts believed that black cats were reincarnated spirits who could tell the future, and finding a white hair on a black cat is said to bring good luck.
In North America and some European countries, a black cat crossing a person’s path is considered to bring bad luck, but in Britain and Japan, the opposite is true, the idea being that the cat has carried bad luck away from the person.
Other superstitions associated with black cats are that an unknown black cat sitting on the porch brings prosperity and that if a black cat walks toward you, he brings good luck.
Like black cats, black dogs are often burdened with superstitious beliefs. Phantom black dogs abound in folklore and fiction, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s fearsome Baskerville hound. Seeing the dog usually portends a death in the family or some other disaster.
In Britain, names for the spectral hounds include Old Shuck, the Gurt Dog, Devil’s Dandy Dog, Wisht Hound, Barguest, Black Shag, Padfoot (shades of Harry Potter and Sirius Black), and Hooter.
Dogs and sometimes cats are also associated with the afterlife. In cultures around the world, they played a role in death rituals or were viewed as guides to the underworld.
Zoroastrians brought dogs to view corpses. The dog’s job was to determine that there was no sign of life and to scare away any lurking demons. The Zoroastrians also believed dogs could slay demons in the night.
In Greek mythology, the three-headed dog Cerberus guarded the entrance to Hades, welcoming those who were supposed to be there and preventing those already there from escaping.
Aztecs had Xolotl, a dog-headed god, who guided souls to the underworld. The Egyptian lord of the dead, Osiris, was often depicted in the form of a cat.
Whether they consciously believe the superstitions or not, many people are afraid of black dogs and shun black cats. Shelters combat their image by putting bandanas or pink bows around their neck to help them look more friendly and approachable.
Happily, lots of good beliefs are also associated with cats and dogs. In ancient India, cats symbolized wealth and status. In more recent times, the image of a cat on a fencepost was a signal from one hobo to another that a good-hearted woman lived in the home.
Hearing a cat sneeze is thought to bring good luck. A bride who hears a cat sneeze on the morning of her wedding will lead a happy life.
It was once believed that the lick of a dog had healing power. Saint Roch, the patron saint of dogs, was reportedly licked back to health by a dog after he contracted the plague. Today we know that while a dog’s lick might not be curative of disease, petting a dog can help to lower our blood pressure and reduce our stress levels.
Doing harm to an animal has its own superstition. Killing a cat brings 17 years of bad luck. That’s even worse than breaking a mirror.
My very first cat, chosen when I was 5 years old, was a little black kitten. It was coming up on Halloween, so I named him Mr. Boo.
Since he was the beginning of my love affair with animals and my eventual career of writing about them, I have to say that he brought me nothing but good luck.
Upcoming Pet Events
Thursday, Oct. 25: Celebrate Howl-O-Ween with Yappy Hour at the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.
Let your pet strut his stuff in costume while you sip Mutt Lynch Winery's Unleashed Chardonnay, Merlot Over and Play Dead, or Chateau d'Og Cabernet Sauvignon.
Pets with the Scariest, Funniest, and Most Glamourous costumes can win prizes, and Best in Show takes home a plush dog bed, chew toy and more, not to mention a two-night stay at the resort, accompanied by his people, of course.
A portion of the proceeds from the contest entry fees will be donated to the Laguna Beach Animal Shelter.
Saturday, Oct. 27: The MVP Adoption event celebrates the many popular varieties of pets available at Orange County Animal Care.
It takes place from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Bonus: big discounts for adopters.
For more information, check out www.ocpetinfo.com or call 714-935-6848.