Many people who see cats as lazy layabouts might be surprised to know cats once had a hand (actually a paw) in saving the civilized western world. In other words, Europe, and by extension the United States, might not exist in the form we know today if it were not for cats.
Beginning in the year 1347, bubonic plague, what came to be called the Black Death, began sweeping across Europe. It began in Italy and spread northward. In five years, it killed at least one-third of the population of Europe. In some cities the death toll was about 90 percent, and in many cities at least half the population died.
No one knew what caused the Black Death, but some people noticed that households with cats seemed to suffer fewer deaths than non-cat homes. No one could say why, but if cats warded off the evil, they were all cat lovers. In some places it even became a crime to harm a cat in any way. Causing the death of a cat was punishable by the death of the human responsible in a few locations.
We know today that the Black Death was carried by rats. More specifically, it was fleas on the rats that spread the disease. When a rat died, the fleas would jump off on people and infect them.
With almost no technology, chemistry and scientific knowledge, the best line of defense against the fleas was getting rid of the rats.
And the best way to deplete the rat population was to have lots of cats on the loose. Without the cats, it’s possible almost the entire population of Europe might have died. If that had happened, the developments that led to civilization as we know it would never have happened. So, if you enjoy the life you live today, thank a cat.
You would think Europe would be clogged with statues honoring cats, but that isn’t the way it is. Maybe folks were too busy burying the dead to have time to put up memorials to the fuzzy critters that saved them.
The ancient Egyptians had lots of cat statues, partly because cats kept rodents out of grain storage areas. But not the folks in Europe who owed their lives to felines.
When I look at our cats, Skittles and Ozrow, I have a difficult time envisioning them as world savers. But that’s because they are well fed and pampered. Although Ozrow snags a mouse now and then for his own amusement, they have never had to stalk and catch what they need to eat.
I can’t say how they would have performed in the rat catching duties assigned to cats during the mid-1300s. Ozrow might have been a good rat catcher, since he enjoys playing like he is a mighty hunter. I have never seen Skittles stalk much of anything, although she does eye birds occasionally.
It’s been a long time since there has been a massive outbreak of flea-borne bubonic plague. It might never happen again. But if it does, the cats are on standby, ready to save the world once more.