Pet owners embrace black cats despite age-old superstitions

Shannon McManus

Aries the cat relaxes at his forever home with Madelyn Korbas. Photos by Kalli Anderson

It is a cool, dark night. A black cat crosses your path. You suddenly trip, fall and end up with a bloody nose. 


Your first intuition may be to think it isn’t — it had to be the cat. For centuries, the black cat has been thought to cause bad luck, and those stereotypes run deep. Without realizing it, we’ve been taught to fear black cats. 

Since early history, many people have been wary of black cats and the bad luck we think they bring. Over the years, this led to mistreatment of these animals, ranging from violence against them to lower adoption rates, which has meant more black cats on the streets. However, in modern times, these creatures have proven to be as affectionate, playful and loveable as cats of any other color. 

The superstition surrounding the dark feline dates back to the Middle Ages, when people didn’t understand the scientific causes of illnesses and deaths. There needed to be something to blame, and the devil and subsequently witches were convenient targets. With their dark coats and sly nature, black cats were connected with the sinister nature of witches and often thought of as companions to witches.

Amber Cederström, a folklorist and acquisitions editor at UW–Madison, finds that the beliefs of black cats themselves also stem from the understanding of cats’ roles in earlier societies. Cats were seen as closely related to humans in the spectrum between God and the devil. 

“Cats, who were around farms, could have this human infant-like existence, [which was] really distressing,” Cederström says, speaking of the relation of cats to humans. The shape of cats worried people as they were so similar to humans, yet not actually humans themselves.

 “[This was] in the same way that witches bridged the gap.Witches could shapeshift into these other animals. Witches were human, but they obviously veered towards the devil. So, you’ve got these conceptual overlaps between witches and animals like cats in particular,” Cederström says. 

The rise of the superstition toward black cats was more culturally specific, with continental Europe largely associating the black cats with evil. The exact timeline of the origin of the superstition varies, but the fear had a strong resurgence in the 18th and 19th century Europe and America.

“The color black has a negative association in our culture and has for a long time,” Cederström says, alluding to the prevalence of the black cat superstition continuing in America.

During the rise of the superstition and years following, mass killings of black cats occurred, and Puritans spread the fear of black cats when they came to America. The Puritans worked to protect themselves from the devil and all evil, thus the witches and black cats were feared. This led American folklore to maintain the slight fear, and even today the myths continue. 

Now, even if people don’t know the history of the superstition, the belief is fed through reinforcement. Dr. Andrea Kitta, a folklorist at East Carolina University, notes the belief can continue even if it is not always in the forefront of someone’s mind.

“It kind of constantly gets reinforced by popular culture… black hats and Halloween decorations. … It’s a constant little feedback loop of that association,” Kitta says.

“It kind of constantly gets reinforced by popular culture… black hats and Halloween decorations. … It’s a constant little feedback loop of that association.”

— Andrea Kitta

While this fear of mistreatment of black cats remains in many shelters, most are pushing for the adoption of the cats all year long to combat the effects of the superstition. Cederström has volunteered at shelters in the past in Oklahoma, where she has found firsthand how deeply rooted the beliefs still are. 

“Shelters often have a surplus of black cats just because people don’t want them, which is really too bad,” Cederström says. 

While the impacts of the superstition are higher in the South, Wisconsin seems to show more positive attitudes towards black cats from varying shelters and rescues. The shift in the narrative toward black cats can be seen through Sip & Purr Cat Cafe in Milwaukee. 

Sip & Purr is a cafe with an adjoined room full of adoptable cats to visit. It is a popular place for cat lovers to visit and potentially meet their new best friend.

Katy McHugh, owner of Sip & Purr, sees little difference in adoption rates of black cats compared with others. This is unusual from her own experience in rescuing cats from other locations.

“A lot of the cats we take from Oklahoma are black. Black cats have zero chance there. There are so many of them, too,” McHugh says.

At Sip & Purr, McHugh has found black cats to be fairly popular among the visitors.

This may be because patrons are able to see more of the cats’ personalities, and McHugh has strong photography to show off the black cats. 

Or maybe people just take a liking to the resident black cat, Nacho, known for his friendliness and calming effect on other cats. At Sip & Purr, he may also have contributed toward giving their black cats a more popular reputation.

Madelyn Korbas, a student at UW–Madison, was aware of this belief when she visited the Madison Cat Project shelter in Madison, and had learned from a friend that black cats are adopted less compared to their feline counterparts.

The Madison Cat Project shelter had two available kittens, one black and one gray. The shelter seemed to have prepared for the black kitten having a smaller chance of adoption by lowering the price.

“[The shelter] did push [his adoption compared to other cats] in a way,” Korbas says. “We got both of our cats from the same rescue, and Aries had his fees about $50 cheaper.”

The superstition didn’t deter Korbas — she left with her pure black kitten, Aries. 

It is not unusual to see shelters lowering the adoption fees of black cats. The superstition has affected adoption rates in the past and still does in certain regions to this day. 

Often, there will be incentives for people to adopt black cats at shelters such as a lower price. Shelters around the country also promote black cats on special days or months related to them, such as Black Cat Appreciation Day or in October around Halloween.

However, some shelters are still wary of adopting out black cats during that time of year. This may stem from the Satanic Panic in the ’70s and ’80s, where a lot of press and beliefs spread the idea that black cats were necessary for sacrifice.

“There were all these rumors and legends going around, but specifically if people were saying ‘I want a black cat,’ that they must be Satanists. They must have ill intent towards that cat,” Kitta says.

It is not unusual to see shelters lowering the adoption fees of black cats. The superstition has affected adoption rates in the past and still does in certain regions to this day.

The shift in narrative toward black cats has been seen in more recent years, with popular black cats showing up in media and venues and becoming fan favorites as well.

Sip & Purr itself is adjacent to Black Cat Alley, an outdoor art gallery covered in large murals from artists all over the world. The alley name may contribute to the more positive association, especially when connected to Sip & Purr. It is a popular attraction for people visiting Milwaukee and receives attention from Wisconsin and beyond.

In broader media, black cats are becoming more popular in shows such as Salem in “Sabrina The Teenage Witch,” Binx in “Hocus Pocus” and Snowball II in “The Simpsons.” These black cats all show unique personalities that become fitting companions for their humans. 

Black cat advocates themselves have also pushed for the adoptions of black cats to combat the superstitions. Korbas has joined Facebook groups that talk about black cats as well as following hashtags on social media to appreciate the beauty of black cats.

“I think in general, the owners that I’ve met with black cats seem to really advocate for them,” Korbas says.

Many black cat owners on social media show off their cats to show their beauty and push back against the idea that it is harder to take photos of black cats. 

With the recent push towards combating the superstition of black cats, it is encouraging to see how it can positively affect adoptions. For Korbas, the joy that she has gained from adopting her black cat inspires her to encourage others to consider doing the same. 

“They are super loving, vocal and sassy, and they make great little companions with tons of entertainment,” Korbas says.