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Cats Took the Rap for the Black Death

Updated on January 25, 2012

Cats were blamed for the Black Plague

It may seem insane today, but at the height of the Black Plague, the common cat took the blame for the horrible occurrence and suffered for this erroneous belief.The Black Plague--Also known as the Black Death--was the most deadly pandemic in human history. It reached its most virulent peak of lethality between in the mid 14th century (Around 1350.) It was likely an outbreak of bubonic plague that began in Central Asia and was carried to Europe by rats on Merchant ships.

As we know today, the rats carried tiny fleas, and these fleas were the true transmitters of the bubonic plague germ. Areas with more rats therefore had more fleas and thus a higher instance of plague outbreak. Cats were the first line of defense against the plague. Thus, the disease was able to rage unchecked once felines began to be persecuted and killed by superstitious people who assigned blame to cats.

Cats often got a bad rap in the Dark Ages. Christian religious leader had often pointed to cats as a source of bad luck or evil. Pope Gregory the 4th said domestic cats were "diabolical"! Black cats in particular were seen as 'familiars' of Satan. Cat owners were often accused of being witches merely for owning a feline. Many cats were destroyed during the Inquisition.

And so when the deadly plague first arrived, cats became a scapegoat. People back then didn't understand about germs and were looking for someone or something to blame for the plague. The feeling that God had abandon them was spreading and religious leaders needed to curb the loss of faith. They needed to blame Satan for the plague. As physical evidence of Satan's presence, cats were singled out as agents of the devil, who were 'vessels of evil', carrying death and sickness with them wherever they went.

The desperate people of the day, frantically searching for a way to fight this invisible scourge, were glad to have a visible enemy they could lash out at. The persecution of cats began in earnest. Felines were hunted and eliminated. Some were sacrificed to God in pyres of fire.

As the feline population decreased, the rat population increased dramatically. They began carrying their flea passengers into new areas where cats had formerly driven them out of. Without cats, rats started to appear everywhere, and the fleas went with them. It seems shocking today that someone would ignore a growing army of rats and kill a cat to stop disease spreading, but that was the thought process at the time. Rats were seen as nuisances and pests. Cats were seen as demonic agents of death!

As a result of the mass cat killing, the plague spread rapidly, reaching across Europe as the rats population traveled freely, unopposed by felines. Worse still, people suffered food poisoning due to rodent droppings in food supplies. Cats got blamed for that, too.

Europeans continued to destroy cats for almost 300 years. After the plague finally faded and the Enlightenment approached, the killing of cats finally stopped. There were relatively few cats left in Europe at that point.

The Black Plague is estimated to have killed 35-50% of Europe's population at the time. Approximately 40-50 million people died. (Reducing the population of the world at the time from almost a Half Billion to somewhere around 450 million.) It wouldn't have been nearly as catastrophic if the cats had been allowed to do their job and stop the rat population explosion. It took almost 200 years for Europe's population to recover from the plague. It took even longer for the feline population to rebound from the tragedy.


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