Cats and the Black Plague

The black plague, also known as the black death, is a disease caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. It enters the body through the skin and travels via the lymph system. The bacteria live in the digestive tracts of fleas. The fleas, of course, live off blood from a host, and when the fleas swallow the blood, it becomes infected with the bacteria. As the bacteria multiply inside the flea, an intestinal blockage forms, starving the parasite because nutrients cannot be absorbed. The flea vomits in an effort to clear the blockage, and since the flea is starving, it feeds voraciously. When the infected flea vomits the diseased blood into a bite site on a host animal or human, the host becomes infected with black plague.

The disease was once devastating, and the resulting death was horrible. There were actually three forms of the black plague – the bubonic form, the pneumonic form, and the septicemic form. Victims of the bubonic plague suffered painful swollen lymph nodes in the neck and the underarms, called buboes. They were also wracked with high fever, vomiting, pounding headaches, and gangrene. Some were so weak that they barely had the energy to swallow.

The pneumonic form was even more punishing. As the body tried to fight off the disease, large amounts of phlegm were produced. The victims had to constantly cough up sputum in an effort to breathe, and more than ninety-five percent of the time, the patient drowned in his own body fluids. The pneumonic form of the plague didn’t need rats or fleas to spread – it was an airborne bacterium spread by the coughs of infected individuals.

Septicemic black plague was a form of blood poisoning and had a mortality rate of one hundred percent. With this type of plague, the individual suffered from high fever and purple blotches on the skin. Fortunately, this deadliest form was also the rarest.

From the middle of the 1300s until the 1700s, the black plague terrorized much of Europe and parts of Asia. Most historians believe the plague was first brought to Europe on ships from Asia. The most likely culprit was the black rats that often foraged among the ships’ holds for food scraps. These were smaller relatives of the brown rats.

The initial outbreak of the plague in fourteenth-century Europe was the most virulent. In fact, much of the populations of England and France were decimated. In some parts of England the death toll was 50%. Some parts of France suffered an astounding loss of ninety percent of their populations.

Many modern readers assume that there was only one outbreak of the black plague, but there were actually several. In fact, it raged through Europe about once every generation until the beginning of the eighteenth century. One of the last major outbreaks occurred in England with the Great Plague of London, which took place in 1665-1666.

Interestingly, the fate of mankind was curiously linked to that of the common house cat. When the cat populations rose, the pandemic ebbed, and when the cat population plummeted, the black plague made a resurgence. Why?

Remember that the plague was spread by fleas that lived on rats. A viscious cycle kept the disease going. Infected fleas would bite a rat, and the rodent would become infected. Then other fleas biting the infected rat would become infected themselves. Once the host rat died of the plague, any fleas living on it would find themselves homeless and would go in search of a new host. Unfortunately, this often took the form of a human. When the sick infected fleas bit the human in order to feed, the human would become infected. So why didn’t the Europeans just keep plenty of cats around to kill the rats and thereby reduce the incidence of the plague? They had cats at the time. They were originally brought to Europe by the Romans, who had discovered the felines in Egypt. Keeping pet cats as mousers had become popular in Europe by the time of the first plague.

To fully answer that question, you need to understand the belief system of medieval Europe. Based on historical accounts and medieval art, people during this period were prone to many superstitions. The Catholic Church was the most powerful entity in Europe at the time, and the masses were consumed with the presence of evil and eradicating it in any form it might be believed to take. Because of their secretive nature and their ability to survive extraordinary circumstances, the general population came to fear cats as consorts of Satan. The innocent cats began to be killed by the thousands.

The cats ultimately got their revenge, of course. Since there were few felines left, the rat populations increased unchecked, and the plague grew even more widespread. You’d think that the humans would make the connection by this point, but instead, they made things even worse. They began to associate the plague’s new vigor with the cats and even with dogs. They believed that since both of these animals typically harbored fleas, they must be the cause of the plague. Subsequently, cats were outlawed in many parts of Europe, and huge numbers of cats and dogs were killed. In fact, at one point in the middle ages, there were barely any cats left in England at all.

Even though cat ownership was illegal in some regions, a few people kept their felines. Other people finally noticed that these cat owners often seemed to be immune to the black plague. Word spread quickly, and more observations of this phenomenon were noticed. This resulted in research, crude as it was during the time.

Eventually, it was decided that the rats, not the cats, were responsible for spreading the black plague. Then, of course, everyone wanted to own a cat or two. And since cats are prolific breeders, it didn’t take long for the demand to be satisfied. The laws which had been the cats’ death sentence were repealed. In many regions, a new law took its place – one that protected felines instead of banning them and almost causing their extinction in Europe.


Comments 52 comments

suziecat7 profile image

suziecat7 6 years ago from Asheville, NC

I never knew any of this. Just another reason to respect my cats. Great Hub.

Carol the Writer profile image

Carol the Writer 6 years ago from Houston, Texas

This is all news to me. What amazing information. Whenever a newscaster says we have too much "stress" today, they don't know what people went through in the past.

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Great hub. I wrote a paper about this once in college. An interesting and ironic piece of history.

nancy_30 profile image

nancy_30 6 years ago from Georgia

Great hub Habee. I've heard of the plague before but never knew what really caused it.

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Everybody heard of the plague and the rats but the additional information about the cats was interesting. Thank you.

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 6 years ago

Wow, This is all news to me!

Sandyspider profile image

Sandyspider 6 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

I read about this when I research for my black cats Halloween Squdioo lens. It makes you respect cats even more.

ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Did not know this history of the poor cat.

Austinstar profile image

Austinstar 6 years ago from Somewhere in the universe

Cats are by far the most beneficial animal on the planet. Some people think dogs sense personalities and if a dog doesn't like you, the dog's owner knows you are not to be trusted. But surprisingly, cats predict who will be a serial killer! Children and adults that abuse and kill cats turn out to be the worst of the worst personality wise.

I personally, will never be friends with anyone who hates cats. They always turn out to be sub human.

BTW, I have both dogs and cats and love both equally.

lorlie6 profile image

lorlie6 6 years ago from Bishop, Ca

Boy, habee-that first paragraph was a toughie! I actually felt sorry for the danged flea in it's death throes. But then as I read on, it became terribly clear that the cat and dog populations suffered the most of all. What a pity! Well, maybe the human beings suffered even more. Of course.

I guess you could say that we've come a long way-in some ways! It seems that the mystery surrounding cats in particular continues in superstitions. Amazing.

Thanks again, habee, for a wonderful read!

Ann Nonymous profile image

Ann Nonymous 6 years ago from Virginia

Here I thought the H1N1 flu had a rival! We have bird flu, mad cow, swine flu and this cat disease-of course the latter reigned during medieval times...which I didn't know. But now thanks to you I do.

Thanks for posting this very well written informative hub, habee. I am learning a lot through you!

Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 6 years ago from England

Hiya, Thanks that was really interesting. I knew about the black death and the rats, but I never knew about the cats. One of the main reasons not to own a cat was that you would probably end up hanging from a rope, or being dunked! because if you owned a cat you were a witch! Damned if you do, and damned if you don't!! thanks nell

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, Suzie. Give them a pat on the head for me!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Carol, we have it made compared to earlier societies!!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Rob. It is ironic - kill the cats for spreading the plague when they were the ones who could thwart it.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Howdy, Nancy. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

Faybe Bay profile image

Faybe Bay 6 years ago from Florida

I have always loved cats and could never understand why people thought they were bad until now. Funny, the myth about "stealing the babies breath?" We caught my cat in bed with the baby at night, then we found out he was guarding her and would hiss at you until you turned on the light. But some people will always believe the bad.

Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 6 years ago

habee- what a wonderfully detailed hub!

I had first read about the "cats" having been linked to the devil in the hub, Christian History 1250," a week or so ago. I believe I read that is was Pope Gregory IX who had denounced them as being of the devil. I really enjoyed reading about the broader picture of the black plague............ it makes you wonder how we can be so easily influenced sometimes.

Aside from that........... every creature has a unique purpose (except maybe mosquitoes, I have never been able to figure that one out), and we as humans should be able to both respect and appreciate the jobs they've been given here on Earth.

Thank again!


sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

Hi! I like your writing style.

Nicks 6 years ago

Great Hub! In fact, I think there are still occsional outbreaks of bubonic plague - was there not one in India not so long ago? As to cats - wonderful creatures which (I seem to recall) are great at relaxing people and preventing heart attacks. Perhaps a myth, but a rather nice one if it is...

prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

nice one habee, superstitions hehe, In the Philippines black cat usually connotes death, Maita

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, HH. I was hoping you'd read this one!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Good to see ya, Bpop!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Kudos, Sandy! Most people have never considered the cat aspect!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Howdy, Ethel - whazzup?

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, Austin. I like cats, but I love dogs and horses! Actually, I'm crazy about all animals!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Laurel, my friend, you always leave the nicest comments!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Awwww...thanks, Ann. I guess I'll always be a teacher at heart!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Tough call there, Nell! Thanks for reading!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

That's great, Faybe! I didn't know cats were protective of their humans.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Yeah, Kaie, I'm still trying to figure out a fly's purpose, too! lol

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Gee, thanks, Sheila! Great comment!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Nope, Nicks, it's not a myth. Petting and holding an animal lowers blood pressure and stress. It's been proven in numerous studies. I wrote an article about it here on Hubpages!

Thanks for reading!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Maita, black cats are considered bad luck here, too. But of course, we don't kill them! I've actually always kinda liked black kitties!

quildon profile image

quildon 6 years ago from Florida

Poor cats! They are still getting the dirty end of the stick even today. Many people think nothing of abusing or killing cats. What a shame!

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Quildon, I've always wondered why people who would never harm a dog have no problem with abusing cats.

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Excellent hub. Interesting and sad topic.

habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks for reading, Rob!

danynguyen 5 years ago

But the plague also happened in countries where cats were not killed. How can one explain that?

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

I've wondered about that, too!

Bonnie 5 years ago

We all know that the secret gov is thousands of years in advance. This has been evidenced thru documents. In fact, this was a virus that wad developed DELIBERATELY for POPULATION CONTROL by the Anunnaki.

They did this before in Ancient SUmeria.

There are documents from eyewitnesses, that the country people would see strange creatures with pig faces walking in the crop fields, waving some kind of wand. And from these wands issued a gray smoke. Afterwards, people would start getting sick and die.

The "pig faces" were, obviously, some kind of maks, and the wants were a biological machine spreated the aerosol virus of the plague.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Wow, Bonnie - that's really interesting!

lindsey 4 years ago

I love Cats. X

erpin 4 years ago

Art Vandeley is the one who is totally incorrect.

For one rats breed at a much much faster rate than cats or dogs. They are smaller and can live in places that are hard to detect and/or eradicate them, which also aids in the ability to give birth to survivable offspring since they have a higher level of safety than a cat or dog. Without predators such as cats or dogs present their numbers exploded. Remember that nature is a balance and in regards to predators/prey if the balance is severely interrupted, such to the point that it was when religious zealots started perpetuating this nonsense, the results can be extraordinary.

In regards to the airborne pathogens people were aware of this as an infectious agent, to the best of their Medieval understanding, and could at least take basic precautions to avoid spreading it this way. Fleas were everywhere however, it was just a basic part of life in this time period. There were no known ways at the time to get rid of them except by getting rid of dogs/cats, and not realizing the side effects of this course of action it led to making the problem worse.

Sebastián Gottret 4 years ago

Cats are not vectors. That's why they can eat a rat withour contracting the infected plea. That's the difference between a cat and a rat. They always watched after us.

nate nelson 3 years ago

hii my name is bill

troll 3 years ago

This is soooo cool!!!!

jim mccormack 2 years ago

I tried to explain this religious edict regarding slyvester sylvesterus and my uber religious cousin.

he thought i was pulling his leg,i ribbed about religious superstitions and logic.

cats in league with satan is right up there with witch burning and heresy.

spookswman 11 months ago

this is good new poor cats I feel so sorry

foxy229 11 months ago

I never new how cool history and the black plague is and how much information you can get WOW!

goldie123 11 months ago

hello all this is a good website

Jorge 4 weeks ago

Today had a complayn from a guest that ferals cats were eating the bird population in the UK...Could be this the next extermination ?? neutering i think is the right humanine thing to do..Cpntrol numbers and keeping a healthy keep a balance...

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