September 26, 2018

Cat Folklore, Part I: Do Cats Suffocate Babies?

My family had dogs and cats as pets when I was young. I loved them all, but for some reason I always thought of myself as a 'dog person' for many years. Maybe it was because dogs are friendly in such an uncomplicated way, or maybe it was because cats have such sharp claws.

One of our cats was a large Siamese who bit several of my friends and everyone in the family except me. I suppose I should have seen his mercy as a sign that I was actually a 'cat person', but I didn't. I only came to that realization when I finally had a cat as an adult. Unlike a dog, he was clean, quiet, and didn't take up much space. He was like the ideal room mate!

He was also very affectionate. Whenever I would lie on my back, whether napping on a bed or reading on the couch, the cat would crawl on top of my chest. Slowly he would work his way up my torso, purring every inch, until his face was touching my chin and his paws were on my neck. I would scoot him back down, but he would always make his way back up.

I have read that a cat touches your face if they like you. I've also read the theory that cats have scent glands in their paws and by touching your face they mark you as their human. I am not sure if these are theories are true, but they beat the old theory: that cats try to steal your breath, particularly if you are a baby.

This is quite an old piece of folklore, dating back to at least the 16th century England. I suspect it is even older than that. It is also an enduring myth. It was recorded here in New England by several 19th century writers. Although Fanny Bergren doesn't include it in her encyclopedic Current Superstitions, Sarah Bridge Farmer does include it in her short 1894 piece "Folklore of Marblehead, Mass.", stating simply that "Cats sat on the breasts of children and sucked their breath."

Clifton Johnson has more to say about this belief in What They Say in New England (1896):
Many believe that cats will cause the death of babies by sucking their breath. The only reason they suggest for the attraction is that the cats are attracted by the baby's breath because it is sweet. They will tell that cats have been caught in the act, and give much detailed evidence. The story ends with the killing of the cat, and a great commotion to restore the gasping baby's breath. 
I cringe at the thought of the innumerable cats killed due to misunderstanding of their motives. Although his informants, primarily farmers from western Massachusetts, believed cats suffocated babies Johnson explains it is not true:
Physicians do not credit the breath-sucking part of the stories, and I will suggest one or two explanations of the phenomena. Firstly, there might have lingered about the baby's mouth fragments of a recent lunch that the cat was removing when found with it's mouth near the baby's; and secondly, the baby's gasping may have been caused by fear of the cat, or by the alarming commotion on its account among its relatives.
While this myth is obviously not true I still hear people mention it even today. Most of them say it jokingly, but I think the humor hides an uneasiness that many people have around cats. Or who knows, maybe people are acknowledging their own weird and powerful fascination with our feline friends. 

1 comment:

Elean said...

One of my aunts years ago, came over to my parents house with her baby. I was little, but remember her freaking out that our cat went near her baby. She was actually worried our cat was going to steal the baby's breath. Always thought that was very strange.