What’s the origin of the myth that cats can suck the breath out of babies?

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Dear Cecil: How did the myth that cats sometimes steal people’s breath when they sleep get started? Rick Weaver, North Bay, California


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Well, not to be Mr. Paranoid or anything, but I’m not totally sure it’s a myth, and neither are some cat writers, as we shall see. No question, people have been getting freaked about cats for a long time. One cat book notes that to many people, “cats may still presage evil, particularly if they are black; they may still, as has been widely held throughout the world, cause the death of a child by creeping upon it and sucking its breath.” Furthermore, we read, “Lilith, the dark goddess of Hebrew mythology, changed herself into a vampire cat, El-Broosha, and in that form sucked the blood of her favorite prey, the newborn infant.” The authors describe such beliefs as “without factual substantiation.”

Maybe, maybe not. Some cat-care experts — folks who presumably would laugh off unfounded legends about cats — warn against allowing a cat into a room with a newborn baby. “Cats like warm spots to sleep,” one writer says. “Attracted by body heat, they may curl up alongside a baby, but this habit must be discouraged as there is a danger that the cat might unwittingly suffocate the child.”

Cecil is willing to concede this fear may be exaggerated. It may be that cats over the years have been unjustly blamed for cases of crib death, whose cause is not well understood. Still, if you’ve got a little one on the premises, no sense taking any chances.

Facts about cats, part 1

Dear Cecil:

It’s hard to believe a person in the 1990s could still believe that cats can “suck the breath out of babies.” No reputable cat care book has ever suggested that a cat will “suffocate” a baby! I have over 50 cat books in my possession, and have lived with cats for 34 of my 39 years. My cats sleep next to me at night, and the only thing that concerns me is that I might roll over and crush them! You are an irresponsible reporter. If you had half the brains and personality of a cat you could accomplish much more than writing for a cheap throwaway paper.

— Donna Kentnor, West Covina, California

Cecil replies:

Listen, honey, at least I’ve got something to sleep with besides a cat. One cat book that warned about the danger of suffocating a baby was You and Your Cat by David Taylor (1986); it seemed plenty reputable to me. Is the danger exaggerated? Maybe, but read on.

Facts about cats, part 2

Dear Cecil:

As a passed-out drunk freshman in a Michigan State dorm room about 32 years ago, I can attest to cat breath thievery — or at least to cat-assisted attempted suffocation. Unconscious in my bunk bed, I was unaware that one of my academic neighbors had let a small stray cat into my room during the night. The next morning I awoke with really fuzzy vision and undeniably hairy tongue. Naturally I thought I had achieved a truly remarkable hangover. I raised my hands to give my eyes a serious rubbing (I was lying flat on my back), when much to my surprise I discovered a large furry growth protruding at least three inches above my face.

Disorientation is not the appropriate word, but it’ll have to do. I pulled my arms back to my sides and froze while I tried to make sense of the situation. About that time the furry growth began to purr, as kitties will do when touched. EUREKA! I had a cat on my face. Totally disregarding the cat’s ability to extend its claws, I grabbed it and flung it across the room. I developed a cat fur allergy which stuck with me for 25 years, but at least it didn’t steal my breath.

Cats like to cuddle up to things warm and rhythmic — I’ve seen them asleep atop operating electric motors, so it’s probably best to keep them out of nurseries. Baby’s face would be too much to resist.

— Kirby Metcalfe, Dallas

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.