It’s Raining (Black) Cats and Dogs

A strange story has been haunting Google News. Titled, “Black Cats are ‘Lucky’ After All,” the story reports on a study conducted by Petplan, a pet insurance company. According to a review of claims filed by Petplan customers, black cats seem to be less likely–15 percent less likely–to suffer an accident or injury than felines of other colors.

This press release-cum-wire story has been reprinted verbatim on all sorts of websites. (I have been unable to find any trace of the original report or to examine the data or methodology myself.) Needing an angle to justify the story, perhaps, the spin has been this: “Halloween conjures images of mysterious black cats that cross paths and bring bad luck. According to Petplan pet insurance, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Among the cat population, black cats are the least accident-prone, resulting in the lowest number of pet insurance claims.”

Color me confused. I thought that the whole superstition behind black cats was that they bring you–the human observer–bad luck when they cross your path. Not that the felines themselves are the victims of bad luck. (Indeed, one would think that if black cats did have supernatural powers, they could use these powers to avoid accidents and injuries, no?)

Putting all this ridiculousness aside, however, the story did get me thinking about a real phenomenon–the struggles of unwanted black pets. According to anecdotal reports, black cats and dogs are adopted less frequently than animals of other colors, and a few peer-reviewed studies have supported this idea.

Why might that be? I think it’s a stretch to say that it has to do with superstition (though some have argued just that). One possibility, experts say, is that black dogs, particularly big ones, might seem especially scary. Others have proposed a far more prosaic explanation: In dimly light animal shelters, black dogs and cats just fade into the background.

Personally, my pet theory (no pun intended) is that the lower adoption rates may have something to do with the fact that animals with black coats simply don’t have much contrast around their faces. Pets’ often dark eyes and coal-colored noses may just not stand out against a black face. Much research has shown that animals’ facial features, particularly the eyes, are important in attracting human attention; it’s the wide eyes of baby animals, for instance, that make them seem “cute.” Perhaps these facial features simply stand out less–and therefore attract less human attention, particularly in a quick scan of many animals–when they’re surrounded by black fur.

The lower adoption rate of black pets remains something of a mystery, but unraveling that puzzle is just one piece of a larger research question: Why do humans love some animals–and species–so much and care so little about the rest? This issue is gaining increasing attention, and it’s one worth keeping your eye on in the coming years–the answers will have implications not only for pet adoption but also for animal conservation worldwide. (It’s no secret that the “cute” and “charismatic” species–think dolphins and pandas–get the bulk of the attention.) Do I see an Adopt A Star-Nosed Mole campaign in our future?

The inimitable star-nosed mole

Postscript: Whatever its cause, the problem with coal-colored pets is now such accepted wisdom that some have made a special effort to draw attention to our dark-haired cats and dogs. Good strategy: The website Black Pearl Dogs. Bad strategy: A flier like the one issued by a Virginia shelter, trying to drum up interest in the shelter’s unwanted “black babies.”

Post-postscript: If you want to adopt a black cat, you may need to wait until after Halloween. Some shelters ban the adoption of black cats around the holiday, worried that the felines may be adopted purely to serve as holiday props–or sacrifices Satanic rituals. (Cue spooky music.) I suspect this worry is greatly overblown–if anyone’s got any compelling evidence to the contrary, send it my way–but the policies exist nonetheless.

Images: 1. Wikimedia/Kraftwerkk9 2. Wikimedia/National Park Service

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13 Responses to It’s Raining (Black) Cats and Dogs

  1. Interesting! I haven’t heard about this, but I’d be inclined to agree with you: with black fur, and black eyes, and much smaller irises than humans, it would be particularly hard to perceive the animals’ eyegaze.

  2. Emily Anthes says:

    Thanks! Always reassuring when experts like you agree!

  3. I’m glad you added the Halloween link, as I was going to raise that. Perhaps part of the issue with the demand for black pets, then, is that shelter/rescue orgs are artificially suppressing the supply by holding them out of the adoption stream for… a month? Less?

  4. Emily Anthes says:

    Interesting idea. I hadn’t thought of that. Though I’m not sure that the practice is widespread enough to make a difference. (And, presumably, it wouldn’t explain the findings on dogs.)

  5. shwu says:

    I couldn’t find the data anywhere, but I’m hoping that the “lower number” of claims filed for black cats was normalized by the number of black cats in their system. It’s basic, but without knowing that, it’s possible that the lower number is due to an overall lower number of black cats compared to non-black cats (which seems likely given the statement about lower adoption rates) and not to black cats being less accident-prone!

  6. Emily Anthes says:

    That’s one reason I looked for the numbers myself–I had that very question. I hope the company was smart enough to account for the total number of cats of each color.

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  11. Charlie Cantrom says:

    Great story about black pets needing adoption. You’ll be surprised how many people are still “spooked out” by black cats. Hear it all the time in the shelter. Black dogs in my opinon, often tend to have more soulful brown eyes. Unfortunately, they are always overlooked as well. Don’t they know black pet hair blends in better with jeans?

    Also read that insurance story about accident prone/cats. If the black cats are less likely to be accident prone, the pet owner IS lucky as it costs less at the vet. Article also promotes black cat adoptionHey, if it helps black pets get adopted, hats off to them. .We need all the help we can get at the shelter with promotion. Thanks for highlighting their plight.

    Totally agree with you on the “cute” appeal factor. It certainly extends to agriculture and food consumption. Look at India not eating cows, Asian countries eating dogs/cats. It’s all cultural perception. Proven fact that pigs are very similiar in intelligence to our dogs (border collies) and yet are eaten. Good points in your article above. Enjoyed.

  12. Janis says:

    How incredibly strange! I’ve had a knee-jerk immediate weakness for black furred animals for a long time — there is nothing prettier than glossy, thick black fur. Black labradors, black poodles, black cats … I even love thick, shiny black hair on people. It’s seriously something noticeable enough about me that I’ve recognized it. How odd to see that other people don’t share it.

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