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Norwich Bulletin - 3/8/2009

Fact or Fiction?

We all know about old wives' tales. There just folklore that we have heard growing up from our grandparents and parents. There are lots of myths that have to do with animals and this column is going to look at a few that are told about our favorite animals companions, cats and dogs.

A Dog's mouth is cleaner than a human's. This is definitely a myth. Consider that fact that the dog's mouth acts as both a washcloth and toilet paper. That should be explanation enough; but if you need more, researchers at Stanford University have identified 53 types of bacteria found in a dog's mouth, compared to 37 types of bacteria found in a human's mouth. This also would negate the old wives' tale that a human bite is worse than being bitten by a dog. I don't know too many humans that transmit rabies, tetanus, and other potentially lethal diseases through a bite. While both can cause serious infection, I would be a little bit more worried about a dog bite. There are approximately 17 dog attack fatalities per year how many people die yearly from a human bite? I am not sure that there are statistics on that, but it would be interesting. In 1996 there was an article in a British medical journal that reported a 31 year old man developed a very painful mouth and throat infection. It was found that the man had a bacterium found in the mouths of animals and birds and his friend's boxer was the culprit that caused his disease by licking his face.

A Cat Aboard ship brings good luck. The most superstitious people on earth are probably sailors. They have lots of beliefs and routines so that they can believe in a safe voyage. The cat bringing good luck on board a ship is at least practical since the cat is a known rat and mouse exterminator. Back in the day, sea voyages were very dangerous and there was a lot of problems keeping the food healthy. Cats would keep the ship rodent free which would mean the food would not get contaminated by mouse and rat droppings. Sailors had a lot of powers that they attributed to the cat. If the ship's cat cried, the voyage would be rough, but if the ship's cat was playful, the voyage would be a success and there would be good winds and fair weather. If the ship's cat walked toward a particular sailor, it meant good luck would come to him but if he turned away before he got to the sailor, it meant bad luck. Many sailors believed cats had supernatural powers and if you made the ship's cat angry, it would raise a storm at sea by lashing its tail about. And even though we know that is not true in itself, cats are sensitive to low atmosphere and can sense pressure systems that produce stormy weather. So when the ship's cat was restless, it was sensing a storm.

Dogs can smell blood on a murderer years later. It is true that dogs have about 220 smelling cells in their nasal passages to our five million, so they certainly start out with an advantage. There is a scrap of truth in this old wives' tale in that dogs, bloodhounds in particular, can follow a cold trail, as long as five days after the person being hunted has passed. Within a few days of a violent crime, the dog can detect traces of blood no human can see on a rug or splattered on a wall; but years after the murder has been committed, is asking a lot. So this one is pretty much a myth, even though we have to acknowledge the extraordinary jobs scent hounds can do, whether its tracking survivors of a disaster, or hunting down an escaped criminal.

Black Cats bring good luck. There are probably more myths about cats than any other creature, especially about luck. This particular myth depends on where you live as to how true it is. In Great Britain and in Japan, black cats are considered symbols of good luck, but in the U.S. and Italy, the opposite is true. There are many cultures that consider black to be a protective color, associated with fertility and prosperity. Giving a bride a black cat as a wedding gift ensures a happy marriage, and in England, a black cat in the home was considered to over protection to the fishermen at sea. The negative myths about black cats come from their purported kinship with witches. Thousands of women in the 16th and 17th centuries were killed in huge numbers, along with their unfortunate cats. But for me the meaning is definitely that black cats are good luck.

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