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December 8, 2012

Slate's Explainer: Do housecats ever kill people?

An Illinois man planned to kill a rival for his wife's affections by electrocuting him and then framing the victim's cat for the murder. Brett Nash was arrested for the bizarre plot in January and pleaded guilty on Tuesday. Do cats ever kill people?

Not grown-ups. Rabies deaths notwithstanding, the Explainer is unaware of any incidents in which a house cat has killed its able-bodied adult owner.

Cats can, however, inflict a pretty gruesome mauling. In 2010, a postpartum cat in Idaho bit her owner 35 times, going back for a second round of scratches and bites after the owner washed off the blood. Last year, a Cleveland man was airlifted to a hospital after a brawl with his tabby cat.

Fights with humans usually don't end well for felines. The New York Times reported a dramatic scene in 1921, when a pet Angora clamped down on the finger of a Manhattan woman who was riding in the tonneau of her husband's car. The husband responded by strangling the cat to death, although that didn't stop an arriving police officer from drawing his weapon against the lifeless feline. It wasn't the last time the NYPD had to face down a house cat: A year later, after being bitten by a cat on Columbus Avenue, a police officer shot the animal dead with his revolver.

Cats occasionally kill infants, but the deaths are accidental. In the early 1980s, a Norwegian father discovered his cat sleeping on the face of his 5-week-old baby. Although the father administered CPR, the child eventually died from the aftereffects of asphyxiation. (A doctor's report suggested that cats might be responsible for some cases of sudden infant death syndrome.) In 1931, a Connecticut cat took a nap on the chest of a 4-month-old child, smothering him. There were several reports of similar incidents in the 19th century.

Smothering deaths appear to have given rise to a widespread myth that cats suck the breath from sleeping infants. The cat was supposed to have aligned its nostrils with those of a sleeping baby, using its chin to hold the child's mouth shut. The cat's motivation varies depending on who tells the tale. Some say cats are drawn irresistibly to the smell of breast milk on a baby's breath, while others believe jealousy is to blame.

Ernest Hemingway called proponents of the wives' tale "ignorant and prejudiced," and bragged that his own cat, Feather Puss, guarded his son while he slept.

Physicians have also tried to dispel the myth, and even Dear Abby urged new parents not to give away their cats. (She did, however, recommend keeping them away from infants.)

The myth, however implausible, has proven quite durable. In 1982, a North Carolina folklorist passed on a version of the tale in the Mount Airy News, adding that the cat's paws were " 'bird working' back and forth" on the baby's ribs while it sucked the child's breath. The myth-debunking website Snopes took on the story more recently.

If your cat really is intent on gnawing you to pieces, it will probably wait until you're already dead. Cats often scavenge dead bodies and occasionally cause problems in the mortuaries of hospitals in the developing world, where they are sometimes kept for pest control.

Despite all its licking and unconditional affection, you should fear your dog much more than your cat. According to CDC data, dogs killed 167 Americans over the age of 14 between 2001 and 2010.

Got a question about today's news? ask-the-explainer@yahoo.com.

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