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Animal Myths and Superstitions

Myths, superstitions, proverbs, old wives' tales and urban legends have been passed down for generations and cultures throughout the world. Most have roots going back to ancient times, and many are about animals. Animals are mysterious and their behavior has created speculation and legends. Much of it is fiction. Here are the facts.

Birds

Mother birds will reject their babies if they've been touched by humans -
Most birds have a poorly developed sense of smell and won't notice a human scent.

Ostriches bury their heads in the sand when they're scared or threatened -
Ostriches don't bury their heads in the sand -- they wouldn't be able to breathe -- but they do dig holes in the dirt to use as nests for their eggs. Several times a day, an ostrich puts her head in the hole and turns the eggs.

Penguins fall backward when they look up at airplanes -
An experiment testing the story found that penguins are capable of maintaining their footing when watching airplanes.

Cats

A cat purrs when it is happy -
Purring is one of the first sounds kittens can make. They can purr by the time they are 48 hours old. While nursing, both mom and kittens can be heard to purr. But while purring is often heard at times of contentment, cats also purr when in pain and in the throes of death.

Cats can be fed an all tuna diet -
Many cats love the flavor and taste of tuna. Despite this love, an all tuna diet is bad for cats because high levels of magnesium can increase Feline Lower Urinary Tract Disease.

Cutting off a cat's whiskers causes loss of balance -
A cat's whiskers are not involved in maintaining balance, only as an aid to feel their way through their world.

Cats have nine lives -
This probably goes back to ancient Egypt, where nine was a mystical number. The god Atum-Ka had nine lives and took the form of a feline whenever he visited the underworld, so the nine lives became associated with the cats.

Cats always land safely on their feet -
Cats are naturally flexible and have an amazing ability to right their bodies. But that doesn't necessarily protect them from harm. Cats can break their front legs and jaw when they land on their feet.

Cats can steal a baby's breath -
Cats are heat and comfort-seekers. Curling up next to a newborn in a crib meets both of these needs. Perhaps the origins started because cat's can smell the baby's milk and try to get a taste of the milk. If the cat presses against the face of an infant who is too young to turn away the baby's breathing may be hampered. Keep cats out of the nursery at naptime.

Cats need milk in their diet -
Although many cats do like milk, it is not necessary in their diet. In fact, many kittens have signs of digestive upset, such as diarrhea after drinking milk.

Wild cats are loners -
Feral cats are not solitary, they usually live as a group near a food source.

Cats are nocturnal creatures -
Cats are most active at dusk and dawn when prey abounds and the hunting is best. The construction of their eyes allows them to see well in low light. Cats only need 1/6 of the light humans do in order to decipher shapes. However, they cannot see in absolute darkness.

Pregnant women must give up their cats -
While toxoplasmosis is a risk for fetuses, a woman is more likely to catch it from handling raw meat or digging in the garden than from her cats.

Black cats are bad luck -
There are nearly as many superstitions about black cats bringing good luck as there are about them being harbingers of bad luck.

Cats hate water -
While most cats hate baths, many find running water fascinating and spend time pawing at dripping faucets. The Turkish Van is nicknamed "the swimming cat" for its swimming prowess. With a bit of preparation it is easy to give a cat a bath without being scratched and mauled. I bathed all my cats!

Reddish orange cats are almost always male -
While the statistics are high that a red/orange tabby is usually male, the female gene sometimes sneaks in and creates a somewhat unusual red/orange female.

If a cat is calico, then it must be a female. -
Most calico cats are female; however it is possible for a calico cat to be male, who are often sterile and not capable of reproduction.

Dogs (visit our Dog Care pages)

Dogs with warm, dry noses are sick -
A dry nose has nothing to do with a dog's health. Normal canine body temperature ranges from 101 to 103 degrees. Veterinarians agree a dog may still have a cold, wet nose while running a temperature of 105 degrees.

Old dogs can't learn new tricks -
Old dogs and old people continue to learn throughout their lives. Very old dogs may not learn well because they may be impaired by progressive blindness, deafness or motivational problems.

A dog wagging his tail will not bite -
The wag of a dog's tail tells nothing about his aggressiveness. It simply is a sign of excitement. Other aspects of his behavior can tell more about aggressiveness such as ear position, whether the dog is staring, growling or barking.

If a dog scoots across the floor, he has worms -
Although dogs with tapeworms will scoot due to the itchiness of the worm segments, not all scooting dogs have worms. Allergies, diarrhea, or even anal glands can be reasons for this behavior.

If your dog eats his poop, he has worms -
Many dogs will eat their own poop, as well as another dog's poop. Although this is a disgusting behavior and pets can acquire parasites from the habit, it is not strictly a sign of intestinal parasites. Many mother dogs will do this to clean her newborn puppies and some pets will do it as an attention getting behavior. The problem may also be poor nutrition or a learned habit.

Female dogs should have at least one litter of puppies before spaying -
There is no known benefit to allowing a pet to reproduce unnecessarily. In fact there is evidence that spaying a female before her first heat may reduce her risk of developing breast cancer.

Some dogs have jaws that lock -
All dogs have the same facial musculature and structure -- none have locking jaws. All dogs can be taught to be gentle and release everything from toys to trash on command.

Dogs eat grass because they know they are sick -
Many dogs will eat grass and then vomit, but this does not mean that they are sick. Some dogs even eat grass simply because they like it. It is normal for dogs to eat grass in very small amounts, their ancestors ate grass. It's roughage.

Dogs know when they've been bad -
Dogs don't think in abstract terms, and guilt is an abstraction. If your dog's ears are back, his tail is tucked and he has an overall low body posture he may look guilty. Your dog assumes a submissive body posture as a direct reaction to your signs of anger.

Low-shed breeds of dogs are better for people with allergies -
For most people, it's the dander and saliva, not the fur that trigger an allergic response.

Dogs can be spiteful -
Dogs can become stressed when left alone and may seek comfort by finding a scent of you in your favorite chair or shoes, and may express their stress by chewing or peeing. But that doesn't mean they did it because they are mean spirited. Same goes for cats.

Dogs require annual revaccinations -
Although exact protocols are still debated it is now known that certain vaccines such as distemper and rabies don't need to be given yearly after initial doses and boosters.

Neutering and spaying makes dogs fat and lazy -
Eating too much and not enough exercise makes animals overweight. Same goes for cats.

Fish

Piranhas are deadly -
Piranhas do have sharp little teeth, and can give you a nasty nip. And they do sometimes swim in large schools, but only to defend themselves against natural predators, such as river dolphins.

Two male betta fish will fight to death -
While bettas tend to protect there territory from invaders, much depends on the size of the container. If you keep two males in a small bowl, they're likely to fight. By providing a bowl or tank with enough space, they may share the territory peacefully.

Fish only grow to the size of their tank -
To remain healthy and to live a normal and healthy life, fish need to be provided with sufficient space to grow and mature normally.

Rabbits

Rabbits are rodents -
Until 1912, rabbits and hares were classified in the order Rodentia (rodent). They were then moved into a new order Lagomorph.

A rabbit's foot will bring good luck -
The thinking behind the superstition is believed to originate from the fact that rabbits are born with their eyes open, and thereby ward against evil. Another school of thought suggests that their ability to reproduce and powers of procreation link them with growth and prosperity throughout life

Saying "rabbit rabbit white rabbit" on the first of the month before any other words will bring good luck -
The "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit" phrase originated in England, but the exact date is not certain. It was used in Kentucky in the early 1800s. Other variants include one should say "rabbit rabbit rabbit" just before going to sleep on the last day of the month, and then upon waking the next morning say "hares, hares, hares".

Snakes

Rattlesnakes rattle before they attack -
Rattlesnakes rattle when they are frightened. They also do this to indicate their presence and avoid being stepped on. Rattlesnakes usually don't give out any warning before they strike.

Snakes can only strike from a coiled position -
Snakes can bite or strike from any position. Coiling does increase the distance that a snake can strike.

Snakes are slimy -
While a snake may be hot or cold to touch, it will never be slimy. All reptiles have dry scaly skin, and snakes are no exception. Reptiles' scales are a protective layer formed from keratin, which is the same material as human fingernails, mammalian hair and bird feathers, none of which are slimy.

Rattlesnakes add one rattle every year -
A rattlesnake adds one rattle every time it sheds its skin. Snakes may shed several times a year, each time adding a new rattle. Also rattles may break off. For these reasons, counting rattles is not usually an accurate method of determining a rattlesnake's age.

Venomous snakes travel in pairs -
Snakes have no real social structure or interest in forming pair bonds. The only time they would be found in pairs is during breeding season or by pure coincidence that two happen to be in the same area.

Injured snakes die before sundown -
A mortally wounded snake will usually die quickly, just like any other animal. Time of day has no bearing on the death of any animal.

Other Animals

Bats are blind -
Bats primarily use a form of sonar to navigate through dark areas and avoid obstacles. Their eyes, while small and sometimes poorly developed, are completely functional. They also have excellent hearing and sense of smell.

Bears are slow and lazy -
If the bear moves both of the paws on one side of its body at the same time, it can reach a speed of up to 30 mph.

Beavers eat fish -
This is a logical assumption in some ways since beaver dams appear to be designed to trap and increase fish population. Beavers build dams to increase access to higher branches and because water to them feels like safety. They eat plant material.

Bees will not sting at night -
They will sting at anytime for protection.

Bulls react violently to the color red -
Like most mammals, the bull is color blind. It is the movement of the cloak that a matador or bullfighter makes which excites the bull. Traditionally matadors use a red cloak, probably to hide bloodstains.

Camels store water in their humps -
A camel can survive seven days without water, but not because they are carrying large reserves inside their humps. They're able to avoid dehydration that would kill most other animals because of their oval-shaped red blood cells.

Elephants have a thick skin -
The skin, except over the back and sides where it can be 2-3 cm thick, is very sensitive. Elephants can feel a simple touch, and are sensitive to the sun which is why the mother constantly provides shade for the babies. They even bathe in mud to protect themselves from the sun.

Frogs or toads will give you warts if you touch them -
Warts are caused by a human virus, not frogs or toads. But the wart like bumps behind a toad's ears can be dangerous. These parotid glands contain a nasty poison that irritates the mouths of some predators and often the skin of humans.

Giraffes are flexible -
Even though they are one of the tallest animals on Earth and their head is 6 meters above ground, giraffes only have 7 cervical vertebrae, like any other animal. They might seem flexible, but giraffes are not even able to turn their head back.

Hippos are clumsy -
With its heavy body, stubby legs and large mouth, the hippo is one of the heaviest land animals, but not the slowest. It can reach speeds of up to 30 mph, which is faster than an Olympic sprinter.

Opossums hang by their tails -
A baby opossum can hang from its tail for a few seconds, but an adult opossum is too heavy.

Porcupines shoot their quills -
The quills are controlled by muscles and are released instantly when they come into contact with another object. A surface has to rub on them for them to lose their quills.

Rats are prophetic -
Since rats live in holds of ships, they are the first to know when water enters and there is the danger of sinking. At the touch of seawater, rats scurry away, and this has been interpreted as an act based on their sixth sense, which is a myth.

Sloths are lazy -
Researchers have found that wild sloths sleep for only 10 hours.

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