50 Fascinating Facts About Felines

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Happy International Cat Day! If you want to celebrate Felis silvestris in all its furry glory, try sharing some of the 50 bits of cat trivia below.

1. Cats spend around 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming themselves. This behavior serves several purposes: It helps cats tone down their scent so they can avoid predators, it cools them down, it promotes blood flow, and it distributes natural oils evenly around their coat, allowing them to stay warm and dry. Grooming also serves as a sign of affection between two cats, and it’s thought that saliva contains enzymes that serve as a natural antibiotic for wounds.

2. Just because a cat is purring doesn’t mean the cat is happy. Cats often make the sound when they’re content, but they also purr when they’re sick, stressed, hurt, or giving birth.

3. Scientists don’t quite know why cats purr, but one hypothesis is that the sound frequency of purring—between 25 and 150 Hertz—"can improve bone density and promote healing," theorizes Leslie A. Lyons, an assistant professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, in an article for Scientific American. "Because cats have adapted to conserve energy via long periods of rest and sleep, it is possible that purring is a low energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy."

4. Ever wonder why catnip lulls felines into a trance? The herb contains several chemical compounds, including one called nepetalactone, which a cat detects with receptors in its nose and mouth. The compounds trigger the typical odd behaviors you associate with the wacky kitty weed, including sniffing, head shaking, head rubbing, and rolling around on the ground.

5. More than half of the world’s felines don’t respond to catnip. Scientists still don’t know quite why some kitties go crazy for the aromatic herb and others don’t, but they have figured out that catnip sensitivity is hereditary. If a kitten has one catnip-sensitive parent, there’s a one-in-two chance that it will also grow up to crave the plant. And if both parents react to 'nip, the odds increase to at least three in four.

6. Can’t afford a private eye? A feline might be able do the job for free. In the 1960s, ambassador Henry Helb—who then lived in the Dutch Embassy in Moscow—noticed that his two Siamese kitties were arching their backs and clawing at one of the walls. Helb had a hunch that the cats heard something he couldn’t, and sure enough, he found 30 tiny microphones hidden behind the boards.

Instead of busting the spies, Helb and his staff took advantage of the surveillance and griped about household repairs or packages stuck in customs while standing in front of the mics. The eavesdroppers took care of their complaints—and apart from Helb and his companions, no one was the wiser.

7. Chances are, your cat hates your music—but they might like tunes written by composer David Teie, who partnered with animal scientists to make an album called Music for Cats. Released in 2015, the songs are “based on feline vocal communication and environmental sounds that pique the interest of cats,” Teie’s website states.

8. If you adore felines, you’re in good company: Many of history’s most famous figures—including Florence Nightingale, Pope Paul II, Mark Twain, and the Brontë sisters—all owned, and loved, cats.

9. Still, the title of history’s craziest cat man might go to Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln was once asked if her husband had any hobbies. Her response? “Cats!”

10. A kindle isn’t just an e-reader—it’s also a word that’s used to describe a group of kittens born to one mama cat. Meanwhile, a group of full-grown cats is called a clowder.

11. The Guinness World Records doesn’t award the world’s fattest pets since officials don’t want to encourage people to overfeed their pets. But in 2003, a Siamese cat named Katy was a serious contender for the record. Katy, who lived in Asbest, Russia, was given hormones to stop her mating. The treatment had an unintended side effect: It dramatically increased her appetite, and the hungry kitty ballooned to 50 pounds.

12. A rich British antique dealer named Ben Rea loved his cat Blackie so much that when he died in 1988, he left most of his estate—totaling nearly $13 million—to the lucky (albeit likely indifferent) feline. The money was split among three cat charities, which had been instructed to keep an eye on Rea’s beloved companion. To this day, Blackie holds the Guinness World Record for Wealthiest Cat.

13. As for the world’s oldest living cat, the title belongs to a sometimes-cranky white-and-orange kitty named Rubble, who celebrated his 30th birthday in June.

14. Ever wondered why your cat likes to rhythmically massage you with its paws? Experts haven’t figured out why cats like to knead, but they’ve come up with several possible explanations, one being that your kitty is trying to mark their "territory" (that’s you!) with the scent glands in their paws. And since kittens knead their mama’s belly to stimulate milk production, there’s also a chance that they carry this behavior into adulthood—a phenomenon known as a "neotenic behavior."

15. Looking to elevate your vocabulary? Try using the word "ailurophile" in a casual conversation. It’s a fancy word for "cat lover," and it’s derived from the Greek word for cat, ailouros, and the suffix -phile, meaning "lover." Conversely, the word ailurophobe—a combination of ailouros plus phobe—describes someone who hates cats.

16. In 2015, a 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting billed as the "world’s largest cat painting" sold at auction for more than $820,000. It’s called My Wife's Lovers, and it once belonged to a wealthy philanthropist named Kate Birdsall Johnson. She loved felines so much that she owned dozens (some even say hundreds) of kitties, and commissioned a painter to capture her Turkish Angoras and Persians in their natural element. Since Johnson’s husband called the clowder "my wife’s lovers," the nickname was selected as the artwork’s title.

17. Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t always land on their feet when they fall. But more often than not, all four paws end up touching the ground. Cats have a fantastic sense of balance, so they’re able to tell “up” from down and adjust their bodies accordingly. If they sense they’re plummeting downwards, they twist their flexible backbones mid-air, allowing them to right themselves so they don’t fall splat on their backs. Additionally, cats can spread their legs out to “parachute” through the air, plus they’re also small, light-boned, and covered in thick fur—meaning their fall isn’t going to be as hard as, say, a dog’s.

18. In 2015, America’s most popular cat breed was the Exotic Shorthair—a flat-faced kitty that’s essentially a short-haired version of a Persian cat. The second most beloved breed was the Persian, and Maine Coons ranked at No. 3.

19. The musical Cats is based on a collection of T.S. Eliot poems called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Published in 1939, it follows the whimsical antics of a group of felines—but the manuscript was originally intended to feature dogs, too. In the end, though, Eliot determined that "dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats."

20. On October 18, 1963, French scientists used a rocket to launch the first cat into space. The feline’s name was Félicette, and she made it safely to the ground following a parachute descent.

21. A train station in Southeastern Japan is presided over by an adorable "stationmaster": a 6-year-old calico cat named Nitama. The Kishi train station near Wakayama City hired Nitama in 2015, just a few months after its prior feline mascot, Tama, died from acute heart failure at the age of 16.

22. Even if you’re not allergic to cats, your cat might be allergic to you. One in 200 cats are believed to have asthma—and this number continues to rise among indoor kitties as they're more frequently exposed to cigarette smoke, dust, human dandruff, and pollen.

23. Greyhound dogs are the ones with a bus line named after them, but cats are pretty speedy, too: The average running feline can clock around 30 mph.

24. Nobody quite knows why black cats are considered to be bad luck, but this myth has persisted across Western civilization for centuries. Felines with dark fur first became linked with the Devil during the Middle Ages, and when the Black Death pandemic ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century, superstitious individuals responded by killing off the black cat population. Little did they know that vermin carried the deadly disease and that the rodent-eating cats actually helped curb its spread. And black cats eventually became associated with witches because women accused of practicing black magic tended to adopt alley cats as companions.

25. Black cats are considered to be a bad omen in the U.S., but in Great Britain and Japan, they’re perceived as auspicious. In the English Midlands, new brides are given black cats to bless their marriage, and the Japanese believe that black cats are good luck—particularly for single women. Meanwhile, the Germans believe that a black cat crossing your path from left to right is ominous, but if the feline switches directions and goes right to left, it’s fortuitous.

26. The ancient Egyptians revered cats, and even worshiped a half-feline goddess named Bastet. People who harmed or killed cats faced harsh legal sentences, including the death penalty.

27. The world’s first major cat show was held at London’s Crystal Palace in July 1871. Hundreds of felines (and dozens of breeds) were placed on display, and around 200,000 guests are said to have attended the event.

28. Remember Nyan Cat? The famous viral meme of a gray kitty with a Pop-Tart body who shoots rainbows from its posterior (the internet, folks!) was based on a real-life feline: a Russian Blue named Marty, owned by Nyan cat illustrator Chris Torres.

29. Most cats weigh in the single or low-double digits, but some breeds are truly huge. For instance, Norwegian Forest Cats, Maine Coons, and Ragdolls often range in weight from 15 to 22 pounds.

30. Long before Keyboard Cat took the internet by storm, inventor Thomas Edison filmed two kitties "boxing" inside a ring. Created in 1894, the brief clip proves that humans have been obsessed with cute cat videos since long before the advent of YouTube.

31. Remember Socks the Cat, the black-and-white tuxedo cat owned by Bill Clinton’s family during his time in the Oval Office? During the early 1990s, Super Nintendo Entertainment System created a video game called Socks the Cat, featuring the First Feline. It was never officially released, and when the game’s publisher shut down, Socks the Cat was lost for years, until video game collector Tom Curtin bought the (reportedly) only existing copy, purchased the rights, and partnered with game publisher Second Dimension to give it a second life. Socks the Cat was slated for an official release in 2017.

32. Some Maine Coon cats are born with six toes.

33. Sphinx cats don’t have fur coats, but their body temperature is still four degrees warmer than a typical feline.

34. Male cats have barbed penises. While painful for the lady cat, they do serve a purpose: The barbs stimulate the vulva, allowing the female to ovulate, and they also keep her from escaping mid-coitus. (Felines are typically loners, and not that into sex.)

35. If you went to college, you’re more likely to have a cat than a dog. In 2010, researchers from the University of Bristol surveyed 3000 people about their pets, geography, and scholastic history. They found that people with university degrees were 1.36 times more likely to own a kitty than other pet owners. This phenomenon might be attributed to the fact that cats are low-maintenance, and therefore better companions for accomplished people with busy careers.

36. Why do cats love to cuddle up in boxes? Animal experts think that the enclosed spaces make felines feel more protected, secure, and important—kind of like they’re back in the womb. (Sure enough, researchers found that when shelter cats are provided with boxes to cuddle up in, they adjust faster and are less stressed than kitties that aren't given boxes.) Also, sleeping in a box might help a feline retain more body heat so it stays nice and toasty, and therefore relaxed.

37. Experts think that cats hate water because it’s uncomfortable to have soggy fur, or because it’s frightening for a kitty to lose control of its buoyancy.

38. While many kitties hate water, not all do. Breeds including the Turkish Van, Maine Coons, and Bengals are said to enjoy taking a dip every now and then.

39. Cats are genetically predisposed to not be able to taste sweets. They will likely nibble off your plate if it contains meat, but they’ll leave it alone if it’s laden with cake.

40. A cat has 244 bones in its entire body—even more than a human, who only has 206 bones.

41. Nobody knows quite why cats meow, but experts think they might be channeling their inner kitten. Baby cats make the plaintive noises to get their mother’s attention, but as full-grown felines, they don't meow while interacting with other cats. Some experts think that felines use the noises they made as infants with humans to convey their emotions and physical needs.

42. Cats sweat through their paws (and sometimes when they get very hot they pant).

43. According to one estimate, a cat spends nearly two-thirds of its life asleep.

44. The iconic Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan owns a pampered lobby cat named Matilda III. She's one of 11 rescue felines that have lived in the storied institution since the early 1920s.

45. In the 1870s, the city of Liège, Belgium tried to train 37 cats to deliver the mail. Letters were enclosed in waterproof bags tied around the kitties’ necks, but it turns out that cats weren’t great at delivering the goods on time (or to the correct address).

46. Approximately 200 feral cats roam the grounds of Disneyland, where they help control the amusement park’s rodent population. They’re all spayed or neutered, and park staffers provide them with medical care and extra food.

47. The Hungarian word for "quotation marks," macskaköröm, literally translates to "cat claws."

48. Napoleon, Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Hitler are all said to have hated cats.

49. There are an estimated 74 to 96 million pet cats in the U.S. In contrast, there are only an estimated 70 to 80 million dogs.

50. A cat can jump up to five times its height, or six times its length—and make the entire thing look easy.

All images via iStock.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
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The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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