Thursday, July 03, 2008

Cats and the Plague

I took a break from writing to have lunch, and over that time I watched an episode of Babylon 5 about an outbreak of an alien plague on the space station.

At one point, the doctor compares the plague, "Drafa," to the Black Death. He says that "three-fourths" of Europe was wiped out in the Black Death, and that since many people thought the Black Death was the work of the devil, they killed cats "by the millions" -- considering cats agents of the devil. Naturally, this only sped the spread of the disease, since the cats were the only creatures keeping rats (and their fleas) in check.

Aside from demonstrating that doctors of the future aren't very good at fractions (three-fourths is a far cry from the generally accepted death toll of one-third), this was the first time I had heard this story about people killing cats in response to the Black Death. It sounded to me like an urban legend, or something half-remembered by a writer who thinks 3/4 of Europe died in the Plague.

I did a little bit of cursory checking, and while I found many references to the slaughter of cats just before the Plague or during the Plague, I didn't find any in reliable sources. I did, however, find reliable modern sources stating that the Bubonic Plague (the most likely contender for the Black Death) is fatal in cats.

So, I ask those specialists out there, is there any truth to this little morality tale about killing cats? Are there accounts of cats being killed in record numbers? Are there accounts of cats dying in record numbers from the Plague itself? Or, perhaps, did some people ascertain that since cats too were dying of the Plague, they might have been carrying it? Does anyone know the truth of it?


  1. Oh, no! As soon as I posted this, I realized we will now be innundated with LOL Plague Catz jokes.

    Please forgive me.

  2. Oh, no! As soon as I posted this, I realized we will now be innundated with LOL Plague Catz jokes.

    I think you mean: "O Noez! LOL Catz jokes iz come to getz me!"

  3. Interesting as plague can be transmitted by ingestion and blood-to-blood contact too.

    Cat eats infected rat.
    Sick cat bites human (or human skins cat and gets blood all over).
    Human gets plague.

    The most common way for a person to get plague in the US is from animals they are butchering/skinning. We get several cases per year; its endemic in the SW US.

  4. Jennifer J in MN4:51 PM

    Well, I'm no specialist, but I've seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail (that's a primary source, right?) and in the "Bring out your dead" scene there is someone swinging a howling cat against a wall in the background, coincidence? ;)

  5. There was the Great Cat Massacre in France, but that was during the "Enlightenment."

  6. Squirrels carry plague. AND they give it to cats, This from the Rocky Mountain News (2007):

    "Plague now has hit squirrels in three metro Denver counties, prompting health officials again to remind people to protect themselves and their pets.

    "Plague is common in prairie dogs, but the last time there was an outbreak among squirrels in metro Denver was 1968.

    "The latest case of plague confirmed in a dead squirrel was found near Cherry Creek Reservoir in Arapahoe County, which brings the total to 15. Thirteen squirrels dead with the plague were found near the Zoo in Denver, and one was found in Jefferson County.

    "Plague doesn’t seem to affect dogs much, but it can be fatal in cats and can make humans quite sick.

    "When a prairie dog or squirrel dies of the plague, the fleas that carry the disease look for another host. If they can’t find one, they die off, but if they can land in the fur of a dog or cat, or the hair of a human, their mischief continues."

  7. Anonymous6:23 PM

    I believe I read that Pope Gregory the IX declared cats to be "diabolical" in the 1200s, leading to subsequent massacres. That at least gives you a name to research under.

  8. ignorance amass is astounding. What I find more astounding and I still see it is that people will kill a ton of cats because someone "says" they are diabolical. I looked up the affects of the plague on cats just out of curiosity and to finally know why didn't cats flourish during a period when there were so many rats. I will go until I find the answer.