Why This Veterinarian Hates Halloween (But Loves Black Cats)

Are black cat sacrifices just urban legend? Sensational journalism? The black cat superstitions have always bothered me. And so has Halloween.

Ignore black cat superstitions. By: NayyarPhotography
Ignore black cat superstitions. By: NayyarPhotography

At this time in previous years there were 2 awful stories in my local media:

A woman was arrested on charges of throwing 2 cats out of a speeding car (the charges were later dropped), and another woman was sentenced to 3 months for beating a cat critically.

Animal abuse is not seasonal. We don’t always know why a sick person loses it and turns on an animal. But consider something that’s in the news every October: Black cats may be targeted for abuse by sick people around Halloween.

Are satanic rituals and black cats just urban legend? Is it sensational journalism? Fact or fiction? Does it titillate the macabre in all of us, like a slasher movie or a visit to a chamber of horrors?

Fact or Fiction?

Most of the claims of cat abuse around Halloween cannot be substantiated.

Newspapers might report a rise in missing cats around October; a woman loses her black cat but all her other cats are safe; weird people try to adopt black cats in the ghoul month; cats are reported to be found dismembered. The evidence supporting these crimes is usually anecdotal.

But it’s enough to make some shelters put a moratorium on their black cat adoption policy around Halloween. If not a moratorium, many shelters seriously step up their adoption screening at this time of year.

One form of abuse can be documented: Idiot people adopt black cats around Halloween just to use as props for a party or event — a photo shoot perhaps. Then they abandon them. Go to the mall, buy your black witch wig and adopt a black cat as an accessory to the costume. Then throw the cat outside along with the half-bitten apples.

That’s like the bunny present at Easter. Stick with the bunny slippers, please, and put a cardboard Halloween cat in your window. Better yet, stick with the witch and pumpkin cutouts and leave the poor black cats alone.

Black Cats in Myth and Legend

According to an article in the St. Petersburg Times titled “Halloween: From God to Goblin,” black cats and Halloween-esque rituals go back about 2,000 years to Ireland, Britain, Scotland and Wales.

Evil spirits, the ancient Druids believed, were responsible for the cold weather and less daylight. A huge festival honoring Samhain, the lord of the dead, was held around October 31, the day before the Celtic New Year.

Huge bonfires, built to frighten away evil spirits and honor the souls of the dead, gave way to sacrifices of domesticated animals. Black cats were thought to be evil spirits transformed into animals. Throw the cat into the fire and dispel one more evil dead soul from the town.

This brought in the Celtic New Year in purity! Speaking of purity, white cats are in the modern lore as targets too. Sacrificing purity is apparently as good as sacrificing evil in some rituals.

Skip up a millennium or so to the Middle Ages, when it was a common belief that witches could divine themselves into black cats. Believing that black cats were witches in disguise, they were thrown into fires. This became a folk custom in France, Switzerland and Belgium, sanctioned by the Church. The Church in the Middle Ages decreed that cats were friends of the devil.

The witch craze got so out of hand in Europe in those years that many women believed to be witches were sent to the gallows or the stake with their “familiar,” their cat. Thus, the Halloween icon of the wicked witch and her black cat is still sold today at Halloween Central to paste in your front window. What a fun holiday!

Black Cat Superstitions

What we still have left today are some of the old black cat superstitions:

  • A black cat crossing one’s path is bad luck.
  • A black cat crossing one’s path at midnight is the devil himself.
  • Never turn your back on a black cat or you will be cursed. (Wait, what do I do at midnight if the black cat is behind me and my back is already turned?)
  • I’ve heard that if I pet a black cat’s tail, it will cure the sty in my eye.
  • And 3 black cats are GOOD luck. I better find 2 more.
  • If it was my wedding day and the black cat sneezed, it means a happy marriage.

Maybe just have lots of black cats crossing every witch (get it?) way, and everyone will live happily ever after.

So are there people today who want to harm black cats, particularly around Halloween, or are we just watching too much Grimm? Maybe we’re just obsessed with Siamese shapeshifting and satanic cat scratch fever. But why all those weird newspaper reports?

I’m keeping my black cat inside right now. Call me overprotective.

Actually, my Snoop is a tuxedo, so he might get a bye from the marauding satanic cultists in my neighborhood. Uh-oh. Maybe he would be a great catch for a ritual since he is both black AND white. Evil and purity all mixed up in one. Kill good and evil with one cat. It’s just all too creepy!

The Reality

The black cat superstitions have always bothered me, largely because many people boycott black cats. Non-superstitious people go to a shelter to adopt a kitty and leave the black cats in the cage.

Shelter workers call this “Black Dog Syndrome,” meaning black cats and dogs are difficult adoptions. Many shelters hold “specials” for black cats and hold a black cat adoption month (NOT October). I found a reference in Michigan where, when the shelter was overpopulated, black cats and dogs were euthanized upon admission. No chance at all for them to even hit the adoption floor.

To explain black as an unpopular pet color, people say that black animals just don’t photograph well. When you look at a black cat in a cage, people say they see no expression (or maybe in their subconscious they see the witch in the movie holding the black cat).

Do the evil dogs in scary movies look like Lassie, or black monsters with white teeth? Hollywood is not blameless here.

I think these superstitions and representations of evil color our emotional responses. It’s not just a matter of black animals being less photogenic. I don’t think history has redeemed the black cat as a symbol of evil since the Middle Ages, sorry to say.

I Love Black Cats

There is one thing I can verify after treating thousands of cats of all colors: There is nothing sinister or reclusive about a black cat.

I don’t believe black kitties can even be profiled as easily as some other colors, largely because there are so many of them, creating a huge gene pool. In fact, studies are ongoing, trying to understand why black cats may actually be healthier than other cats. Evidence is pointing to black cats being more resistant to viruses than cats of other colors.

I’ve had an abundance of black kitties dumped on me over the years because nobody else wanted them. There was the pseudo-feral brought in by the shelter for me to euthanize (Beebs went on to live with me for 14 years). Then we had the goofy 3-legged stray whose leg I pinned (Edgar, lived to be 15.) Now there’s the dumb, sweet Snoopy (still looking dazed and confused at 12). And that’s just to name a few.

I’ve never seen these felines as expressionless OR sinister. Actually, they all became part of my menagerie with no dust-up whatsoever.

Happy Halloween

Black cats being targeted for abuse, being unwanted or just being dumped gives me yet another reason to hate Halloween. It’s my least favorite holiday, if you can even call Halloween a “holiday.”

When I was a kid, my Mom never let me trick or treat at night because New York “was getting dangerous.” Razor blades and pederasts replaced candy corn and Milky Ways in her mind.

Then, when I was a mom myself with little kids, our coonhound stole my twins’ Halloween candy 2 years in a row. Confessions of a veterinarian — I am guilty as charged! I should have minded the treats. At least Bitsy had an iron stomach… Never even belched.

My worst Halloween nightmare was long ago when I was a college student in New England. I took a house-sitting job in rural Massachusetts. Think Salem witch trials. I was in an ancient Nathaniel Hawthorne farmhouse, creaking floorboards, barren trees and the wind howling down the chimneys. Ten pairs of eyes were staring at me in the kitchen. Cats. They were hungry. Lights flickering from the wind and the storm.

Then there was a deep thud in the Dark Shadows hallway. It was Billie, the dog. The ladies of the house forgot to tell me he had “spells” once in a while. Billie lay quivering as I stroked his head under a portrait of Ichabod Crane. It was a Grimm scene indeed. Thank goodness Billie’s seizure was short. They also forgot to give me the number of a vet.

My idea of a nice October 31? Watching the Family Channel with lots of lights on, with my cats and dogs at my side — inside!

I’m looking ahead to Thanksgiving.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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