The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Community News Network

December 6, 2012

Slate's Explainer: Do housecats ever kill people?

An Illinois man planned to kill a rival for his wife's affections by electrocuting him and then framing the victim's cat for the murder. Brett Nash was arrested for the bizarre plot in January and pleaded guilty on Tuesday. Do cats ever kill people?

Not grown-ups. Rabies deaths notwithstanding, the Explainer is unaware of any incidents in which a house cat has killed its able-bodied adult owner.

Cats can, however, inflict a pretty gruesome mauling. In 2010, a postpartum cat in Idaho bit her owner 35 times, going back for a second round of scratches and bites after the owner washed off the blood. Last year, a Cleveland man was airlifted to a hospital after a brawl with his tabby cat.

Fights with humans usually don't end well for felines. The New York Times reported a dramatic scene in 1921, when a pet Angora clamped down on the finger of a Manhattan woman who was riding in the tonneau of her husband's car. The husband responded by strangling the cat to death, although that didn't stop an arriving police officer from drawing his weapon against the lifeless feline. It wasn't the last time the NYPD had to face down a house cat: A year later, after being bitten by a cat on Columbus Avenue, a police officer shot the animal dead with his revolver.

Cats occasionally kill infants, but the deaths are accidental. In the early 1980s, a Norwegian father discovered his cat sleeping on the face of his 5-week-old baby. Although the father administered CPR, the child eventually died from the aftereffects of asphyxiation. (A doctor's report suggested that cats might be responsible for some cases of sudden infant death syndrome.) In 1931, a Connecticut cat took a nap on the chest of a 4-month-old child, smothering him. There were several reports of similar incidents in the 19th century.

Smothering deaths appear to have given rise to a widespread myth that cats suck the breath from sleeping infants. The cat was supposed to have aligned its nostrils with those of a sleeping baby, using its chin to hold the child's mouth shut. The cat's motivation varies depending on who tells the tale. Some say cats are drawn irresistibly to the smell of breast milk on a baby's breath, while others believe jealousy is to blame.

Ernest Hemingway called proponents of the wives' tale "ignorant and prejudiced," and bragged that his own cat, Feather Puss, guarded his son while he slept. Physicians have also tried to dispel the myth, and even Dear Abby urged new parents not to give away their cats. (She did, however, recommend keeping them away from infants.) The myth, however implausible, has proven quite durable. In 1982, a North Carolina folklorist passed on a version of the tale in the Mount Airy News, adding that the cat's paws were " 'bird working' back and forth" on the baby's ribs while it sucked the child's breath. The myth-debunking website Snopes took on the story more recently.

If your cat really is intent on gnawing you to pieces, it will probably wait until you're already dead. Cats often scavenge dead bodies and occasionally cause problems in the mortuaries of hospitals in the developing world, where they are sometimes kept for pest control.

Despite all its licking and unconditional affection, you should fear your dog much more than your cat. According to CDC data, dogs killed 167 Americans over the age of 14 between 2001 and 2010.

               

Got a question about today's news? ask-the-explainer@yahoo.com.

               

 

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • Wal-Mart to cut prices more aggressively in back-to-school push

    Wal-Mart Stores plans to cut prices more aggressively during this year's back-to-school season and will add inventory to its online store as the chain battles retailers for student spending.

    July 21, 2014

  • Hospitals let patients schedule ER visits

    Three times within a week, 34-year-old Michael Granillo went to the emergency room at Northridge Hospital Medical Center in Los Angeles because of intense back pain. Each time, Granillo, who didn't have insurance, stayed for less than an hour before leaving without being seen by a doctor.

    July 21, 2014

  • Starved Pennsylvania 7-year-old weighed only 25 pounds

    A 7-year-old Pennsylvania boy authorities described as being so underweight he looked like a human skeleton has been released from the hospital.

    July 21, 2014

  • Malaysians wonder 'Why us?' after second loss of airline jet

    It was all too familiar. Grieving families rushing to airport. The flashing television graphics of a plane's last radar appearance. The uncomfortable officials before a heavy thicket of microphones.
    For many Malaysians, the disappearance of Flight 370 in March has been a long trauma from which the nation has not yet recovered.

    July 18, 2014

  • A quarter of the world's most educated people live in the 100 largest cities

    College graduates are increasingly sorting themselves into high-cost, high-amenity cities such as Washington, New York, Boston and San Francisco, a phenomenon that threatens to segregate us across the country by education.

    July 18, 2014

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Facebook tests button to let people shop from its website

    Members on desktop computers or mobile devices can click a "buy" button to make purchases through advertisements or other posts on the world's largest social network, the Menlo Park, California-based company said Thursday in a blog post.

    July 17, 2014

  • The terrible history of passenger planes getting shot out of the sky

    What is more clear is that, if initial reports are true, this would be the deadliest incident of a civilian passenger plane being shot down in modern memory. In some instances, the causes of the disaster are still shrouded in mystery. Here are some of the worst events.

    July 17, 2014

  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo

  • web_starbucks-cof_big_ce.jpg Starbucks sees more Apple-like stores after Colombia debut

    This week Starbucks opened its first location in Colombia — a 2,700-square-foot store with a heated patio, concrete columns, mirrors on the ceiling and walls of colorful plants.

    July 17, 2014 1 Photo