50 Facts About Felines for National Cat Day


Around 3.4 million cats enter shelters each year, and only 37 percent of them find forever homes. That’s why animal welfare advocates marked October 29th as National Cat Day, an annual day of awareness to promote feline adoption. This Sunday, celebrate Felis silvestris in all its furry glory by brushing up on the 50 bits of trivia below.

1. Cats spend around 30 to 50 percent of their day grooming themselves. This behavior serves several purposes: It helps cats tone down their scent so they can avoid predators, it cools them down, it promotes blood flow, and it distributes natural oils evenly around the coat, allowing them to stay warm and dry. Grooming also serves as a sign of affection between two cats, and it’s thought that saliva contains enzymes that serve as a natural antibiotic for wounds.

2. Just because a cat is purring doesn’t mean it’s happy. Cats often make the sound when they’re content, but they also purr when they’re sick, stressed, hurt, and giving birth.

3. Scientists don’t quite know why cats purr, but one hypothesis is that the sound frequency of purring—between 25 and 150 Hertz—"can improve bone density and promote healing," theorizes Leslie A. Lyons, an assistant professor at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California, Davis, in an article for Scientific American. "Because cats have adapted to conserve energy via long periods of rest and sleep, it is possible that purring is a low energy mechanism that stimulates muscles and bones without a lot of energy."

4. Ever wonder why catnip lulls felines into a trance? The herb contains several chemical compounds, including one called nepetalactone, which a cat detects with receptors in its nose and mouth. The compounds trigger the typical odd behaviors you associate with the wacky kitty weed, including sniffing, head shaking, head rubbing, and rolling around on the ground.

5. More than half of the world’s felines don’t respond to catnip. Scientists still don’t know quite why some kitties go crazy for the aromatic herb and others don’t, but they have figured out that catnip sensitivity is hereditary. If a kitten has one catnip-sensitive parent, there’s a one-in-two chance that it will also grow up to crave the plant. And if both parents react to 'nip, the odds increase to at least three in four.

6. Can’t afford a private eye? A feline might be able do the job for free. In the 1960s, ambassador Henry Helb—who then lived in the Dutch Embassy in Moscow—noticed that his two Siamese kitties were arching their backs and clawing at one of the walls. Helb had a hunch that the cats heard something he couldn’t, and sure enough, he found 30 tiny microphones hidden behind the boards.

Instead of busting the spies, Helb and his staff took advantage of the surveillance and griped about household repairs or packages stuck in customs while standing in front of the mics. The eavesdroppers took care of their complaints—and apart from Helb and his companions, no one was the wiser.

7. Chances are, your cat hates your music—but they might like tunes written by composer David Teie, who partnered with animal scientists to make an album called Music for Cats. Released in 2015, the songs are “based on feline vocal communication and environmental sounds that pique the interest of cats,” Teie’s website states.

8. If you adore felines, you’re in good company: Many of history’s most famous figures—including Florence Nightingale, Pope Paul II, Mark Twain, and the Brontë sisters—all owned, and loved, cats.

9. Still, the title of history’s craziest cat man might go to President Abraham Lincoln. Mary Todd Lincoln was once asked if her husband had any hobbies. Her response? “Cats!”

10. A Kindle isn’t just an e-reader—it’s also a word that’s used to describe a group of kittens born to one mama cat. Meanwhile, a group of full-grown cats is called a clowder.

11. The Guinness World Records doesn’t award the world’s fattest pets since officials don’t want to encourage people to overfeed their pets. But in 2003, a Siamese cat named Katy was a serious contender for the record. Katy, who lived in Asbest, Russia, was given hormones to stop her mating. The treatment had an unintended side effect: It dramatically increased her appetite, and the hungry kitty ballooned to 50 pounds.

12. In 1988, a rich British antique dealer named Ben Rea loved his cat Blackie so much that when he died, he left most of his estate—nearly $13 million—to the lucky (albeit likely indifferent) feline. The money was split among three cat charities, which had been instructed to keep an eye on Rea’s beloved companion. To this day, Blackie holds the Guinness World Record for Wealthiest Cat.

13. As for the world’s oldest living cat, the title belongs to a 30-year-old Siamese named Scooter, who currently lives in Mansfield, Texas with his owner, Gail Floyd.

14. Ever wondered why your cat likes to rhythmically massage you with its paws? Experts haven’t figured out why cats like to knead, but they’ve come up with several possible explanations, one being that your kitty is trying to mark their "territory" (that’s you!) with the scent glands in their paws. And since kittens knead their mama’s belly to stimulate milk production, there’s also a chance that they carry this behavior into adulthood—a phenomenon known as a "neotenic behavior."

15. Looking to elevate your vocabulary? Try using the word "ailurophile" in a casual conversation. It’s a fancy word for "cat lover," and it’s derived from the Greek word for cat, ailouros, and the suffix -phile, meaning "lover." Conversely, the word ailurophobe—a combination of ailouros plus phobe—describes someone who hates cats.

16. In 2015, a 6-by-8.5-foot oil painting billed as the "world’s largest cat painting" sold at auction for more than $820,000. It’s called My Wife's Lovers, and it once belonged to a wealthy philanthropist named Kate Birdsall Johnson. She loved felines so much that she owned dozens (some even say hundreds) of kitties, and commissioned a painter to capture her Turkish Angoras and Persians in their natural element. Since Johnson’s husband called the clowder "my wife’s lovers," the nickname was selected as the artwork’s title.

17. Contrary to popular belief, cats don’t always land on their feet when they fall. But more often than not, all four paws end up touching the ground. Cats have a fantastic sense of balance, so they’re able to tell “up” from down and adjust their bodies accordingly. If they sense they’re plummeting downwards, they twist their flexible backbones mid-air, allowing them to right themselves so they don’t fall splat on their backs. Additionally, cats can spread their legs out to “parachute” through the air, plus they’re also small, light-boned, and covered in thick fur—meaning their fall isn’t going to be as hard as, say, a dog’s.

18. In 2015, America’s most popular cat breed was the Exotic Shorthair—a flat-faced kitty that’s essentially a short-haired version of a Persian cat. The second most beloved breed was the Persian, and Maine Coons ranked at No. 3.

19. The musical Cats is based on a collection of T.S. Eliot poems called Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Published in 1939, it follows the whimsical antics of a group of felines—but the manuscript was originally intended to feature dogs, too. In the end, though, Eliot determined that "dogs don’t seem to lend themselves to verse quite so well, collectively, as cats."

20. On October 18, 1963, French scientists used a rocket to launch the first cat into space. The feline’s name was Félicette, and she made it safely to the ground following a parachute descent.

21. A train station in Southeastern Japan is presided over by an adorable "stationmaster": a 6-year-old calico cat named Nitama. The Kishi train station near Wakayama City hired Nitama in 2015, just a few months after its prior feline mascot, Tama, died from acute heart failure at the age of 16.

22. Even if you’re not allergic to cats, your cat might be allergic to you. One in 200 cats are believed to have asthma—and this number continues to rise among indoor kitties as they're more frequently exposed to cigarette smoke, dust, human dandruff, and pollen.

23. Greyhound dogs are the ones with a bus line named after them, but cats are pretty speedy, too: The average running feline can clock around 30 miles per hour.

24. Nobody quite knows why black cats are considered to be bad luck, but this myth has persisted across Western civilization for centuries. Felines with dark fur first became linked with the Devil during the Middle Ages, and when the Black Death pandemic ravaged Europe in the mid-14th century, superstitious individuals responded by killing off the black cat population. Little did they know that vermin carried the deadly disease and that the rodent-eating cats actually helped curb its spread. And black cats eventually became associated with witches because women accused of practicing black magic tended to adopt alley cats as companions.

25. Black cats are considered to be a bad omen in the U.S., but in Great Britain and Japan, they’re perceived as auspicious. In the English Midlands, new brides are given black cats to bless their marriage, and the Japanese believe that black cats are good luck—particularly for single women. Meanwhile, the Germans believe that a black cat crossing your path from left to right is ominous, but if the feline switches directions and goes right to left, it’s fortuitous.

26. The ancient Egyptians revered cats, and even worshiped a half-feline goddess named Bastet. People who harmed or killed cats faced harsh legal sentences, including the death penalty.

27. The world’s first major cat show was held at London’s Crystal Palace in July 1871. Hundreds of felines (and dozens of breeds) were placed on display, and around 200,000 guests are said to have attended the event.

28. Remember Nyan Cat? The famous viral meme of a gray kitty with a Pop-Tart body who shoots rainbows from its posterior (the internet, folks!) was based on a real-life feline: a Russian Blue named Marty, owned by Nyan cat illustrator Chris Torres.

29. Most cats weigh in the single or low-double digits, but some breeds are truly huge. For instance, Norwegian Forest Cats, Maine Coons, and Ragdolls often range in weight from 15-22 pounds.

30. Long before Keyboard Cat took the internet by storm, inventor Thomas Edison filmed two kitties "boxing" inside a ring. Created in 1894, the brief clip proves that humans have been obsessed with cute cat videos since long before the advent of YouTube.

31. Remember Socks the Cat, the black-and-white tuxedo cat owned by Bill Clinton’s family during his time in the Oval Office? During the early 1990s, Super Nintendo Entertainment System created a video game called Socks the Cat, featuring the First Feline. It was never officially released, and when the game’s publisher shut down, Socks the Cat was lost for years, until video game collector Tom Curtin bought the (reportedly) only existing copy, purchased the rights, and partnered with game publisher Second Dimension to give it a second life. Socks the Cat is slated for an official release in 2017.

32. Some Maine Coon cats are born with six toes.

33. Sphinx cats don’t have fur coats, but their body temperature is still four degrees warmer than a typical feline.

34. Male cats have barbed penises. While painful for the lady cat, they do serve a purpose: The barbs stimulate the vulva, allowing the female to ovulate, and they also keep her from escaping mid-coitus. (Felines are typically loners, and not that into sex.)

35. If you went to college, you’re more likely to have a cat than a dog. In 2010, researchers from the University of Bristol surveyed 3000 people about their pets, geography, and scholastic history. They found that people with university degrees were 1.36 times more likely to own a kitty than other pet owners. This phenomenon might be attributed to the fact that cats are low-maintenance, and therefore better companions for accomplished people with busy careers.

36. Why do cats love to cuddle up in boxes? Animal experts think that the enclosed spaces make felines feel more protected, secure, and important—kind of like they’re back in the womb. (Sure enough, researchers found that when shelter cats are provided with boxes to cuddle up in, they adjust faster and are less stressed than kitties that aren't given boxes.) Also, sleeping in a box might help a feline retain more body heat so it stays nice and toasty, and therefore relaxed.

37. Experts think that cats hate water because it’s uncomfortable to have soggy fur, or because it’s frightening for a kitty to lose control of its buoyancy.

38. While many kitties hate water, not all do. Breeds including the Turkish Van, the Maine Coons, and Bengals are said to enjoy taking a dip every now and then.

39. Cats are genetically predisposed to not being able to taste sweets. They will likely nibble off your plate if it contains meat, but they’ll leave it alone if it’s laden with cake.

40. A cat has 244 bones in its entire body—even more than a human, who only has 206 bones.

41. Nobody knows quite why cats meow, but experts think they might be channeling their inner kitten. Baby cats make the plaintive noises to get their mother’s attention, but as full-grown felines, they don't meow while interacting with other cats. Some experts think that felines use the noises they made as infants with humans to convey their emotions and physical needs.

42. Cats sweat through their paws (and sometimes when they get very hot they pant).

43. According to one estimate, a cat spends nearly two-thirds of its life asleep.

44. The iconic Algonquin Hotel in midtown Manhattan owns a pampered lobby cat named Matilda III. She's one of 11 rescue felines that have lived in the storied institution since the early 1920s.

45. In the 1870s, the city of Liège, Belgium tried to train 37 cats to deliver the mail. Letters were enclosed in waterproof bags tied around the kitties’ necks, but it turns out that cats weren’t great at delivering the goods on time (or to the correct address).

46. Approximately 200 feral cats roam the grounds of Disneyland, where they help control the amusement park’s rodent population. They’re all spayed or neutered, and park staffers provide them with medical care and extra food.

47. The Hungarian word for "quotation marks," macskaköröm, literally translates to "cat claws."

48. Napoleon, Caesar, Genghis Khan, and Hitler are all said to have hated cats.

49. There are an estimated 74 to 96 million pet cats in the U.S. In contrast, there are only an estimated 70 to 80 million dogs.

50. A cat can jump up to five times its height, or six times its length—and make the entire thing look easy.

All images via iStock.

25 Adorable Facts About Puppies

Everyone loves puppies, we know. It's scientifically proven that they're heart-meltingly cute. But there's more to the little fur babies than just those adorable puppy eyes. In honor of National Puppy Day, here are 25 things everyone should know about these four-legged snuggle buddies.


A dog with a red beret and a scarf.

Etymologists think the term puppy may come from poupeé, a French word meaning doll or toy. The word puppy doesn't appear to have entered the English language until the late 16th century—before that, English-speakers called baby dogs whelps. William Shakespeare's King John, believed to be written in the 1590s, is one of the earliest known works to use the (super cute) term puppy-dog.


A puppy with closed eyes burrows into a white towel.

Puppies are functionally blind and deaf at birth. On day one, their eyes are firmly shut and their ear canals closed. Why? In brief, it’s part of an evolutionary trade-off. Since pregnancy can hurt a carnivore's ability to chase down food, dogs evolved to have short gestation periods. Brief pregnancies meant that canine mothers wouldn't need to take prolonged breaks from hunting. However, because dog embryos spend such a short time in the womb (only two months or so), puppies aren't born fully developed—and neither are their eyes or ears.


A person brushes a collie's teeth.

Like many newborn mammals, puppies are born completely toothless. At 2 to 4 weeks of age, a puppy's 28 baby teeth will start to come in. Around 12 to 16 weeks old, those baby teeth fall out, and by the time pups are 6 months old, they should be sporting a set of 42 adult teeth.


A puppy sleeps against a plush toy.

Like children, puppies need a lot of sleep—up to 15 to 20 hours of it a day. The American Kennel Club strongly advises dog owners to resist the urge to disturb napping puppies, because sleep is critical for a young canine's developing brain, muscles, and immune system. Puppy owners should also establish a designated sleeping space on their pup's behalf so they can snooze undisturbed.


Three bulldog puppies

Purebred dogs can exhibit some extreme bodily proportions, which doesn't always make for easy births. Breeds with atypically large heads are more likely to be born by C-section than those with smaller skulls. A 2010 survey of 22,005 individual dog litters in the UK found that terriers, bulldogs, and French bulldogs had Caesarian births more than 80 percent of the time. The other breeds with the highest rates of C-sections in the study were Scottish terriers, miniature bull terriers, Dandie Dinmont terriers, mastiffs, German wirehaired pointers, Clumber spaniels, and Pekingeses, according to the study.


Brown labrador puppies nurse.

As a general rule, smaller breeds tend to have smaller litters, while bigger dogs give birth to more puppies. The biggest litter on record was born to a Neapolitan mastiff that gave birth via Caesarian section to a batch of 24 puppies in Cambridgeshire, UK in 2004. In rare cases, very small dogs do give birth to relatively large litters, though. In 2011, a Chihuahua living in the English town of Carlisle gave birth to a whopping 10 puppies—twice as many as expected. Each weighed less than 2.5 ounces.


A golden retriever puppy wrapped in a green and white towel

Sometimes, a puppy in a light-colored litter can be born green. On two different occasions in 2017, in fact, British dogs made the news for giving birth to green-tinted puppies. In January, a 2-year-old chocolate lab in Lancashire, UK gave birth to a litter that included a mossy-green pup. Her owners named her FiFi, after Fiona, the green-skinned ogre from Shrek. Just a few months later, a golden retriever in the Scottish Highlands also gave birth to a puppy with a green coat, a male named Forest. How did the puppies end up looking like Marvin the Martian? In rare cases, the fur of a light-haired puppy can get stained by biliverdin, a green pigment found in dog placentas. It's not permanent, though. The green hue gradually disappears over the course of a few weeks.


A puppy stands on a wooden walkway yawning.

Ever notice that when somebody yawns, other people may follow suit? Contagious yawning, thought to be a sign of empathy, affects humans, baboons, chimps, and yes, dogs. But as research published in Animal Cognition suggests, young canines aren't susceptible to catching yawns from birth. In the 2012 study, Swedish researchers took a group of 35 dogs between 4 and 14 months old on closely monitored play dates, feigning yawns in front of each individual animal. Dogs that were less than 7 months old didn't react, yet many of the older dogs would respond with a yawn of their own. This pattern mirrors what happens with humans—children don't pick up the habit of contagious yawning until around age 4, when they start to develop social skills like empathy. These results suggest that dogs, too, may develop empathy over the course of their puppyhood.


A woman holds up a puppy.

Like humans, puppies seem to grow out of baby talk, recent research has found. As part of a 2017 study, 30 women were asked to look at assorted photographs of people and dogs and utter this pre-written line: "Hi! Hello cutie! Who's a good boy? Come here! Good boy! Yes! Come here sweetie pie! What a good boy!" To the surprise of no one, the human test subjects spoke in a higher register while looking at dog pictures, especially puppy photos. Afterward, the researchers played the recordings for 10 adult pooches and 10 puppies. Almost all of the pups started barking and running toward the speaker when they heard the baby-talk recordings. In contrast, the grown dogs pretty much ignored the recordings altogether.


A mother Dalmatian and her puppy snuggle together.

Beloved by firefighters, Disney fans, and George Washington, Dalmatians arguably have the most recognizable coat of any dog breed. Or at least, full-grown Dalmatians do. As puppies, they're born white and spot-less. The markings usually begin to show up after four weeks or so. (A small subset of Dalmatian puppies are born with one or two large black blotches, known as patches, but those markings aren't allowed in most competitive show rings.)


A dog sits on a chair and rests its chin on a table.

Those adorable "puppy eyes" aren't an inadvertent expression of canine emotion; they're a deliberate ploy to get our attention. Puppies (and their older kin) have learned that raising their eyebrows, which makes their eyes appear bigger and sadder, makes them magnets for human attention. According to one study from 2017, dogs are more likely to make dramatic facial expressions like puppy-dog eyes when they know humans are watching. And it works. Research has shown that shelter puppies who put on such faces get adopted more quickly than dogs that show other behaviors, like wagging their tails.


Two identical puppies and their mother sit in the grass.

Scientists don't know how common identical twin puppies are, because until very recently, no one was able to prove that they existed at all. In 2016, Kurt de Cramer, a South African veterinarian, noticed something unusual while performing a C-section on a pregnant Irish wolfhound. Normally, every puppy gets its own placenta, yet de Cramer noticed that two of the seven pups in this litter shared a single placenta. Testing later verified that the puppies were genetically identical. It was the first confirmed case of identical twin puppies in the world.


Three puppies sit on a cushion.
Kim et al., Scientific Reports (2017)

In 1996, Dolly the sheep became the first successful mammal clone. Nine years later, geneticists in South Korea used the same process to engineer the world's first canine clone, an Afghan hound named Snuppy. While Snuppy passed away in 2015 at the respectable age of 10, his story isn't over yet. Last November, researchers announced that four puppies had been cloned from his stem cells. Sadly, one of the pups died a few days after its birth, but the other three survived. Scientists hope that these young dogs will teach us how healthy cloned animals are compared to their naturally conceived counterparts.


Lin Manuel Miranda
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

In the award-winning musical Hamilton, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton sing a ballad called "Dear Theodosia" to their newborn children. The tender song's inspiration wasn't a newborn babe, though. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote it the week he adopted Tobillo, a stray puppy he and his wife found while on vacation in 2011.


A black-and-white portrait of John Steinbeck
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Of Mice and Men might feature one of the biggest animal lovers in American literature—the rabbit- and puppy-loving Lennie—but ironically, a puppy once jeopardized the novel's existence. In May 1936, John Steinbeck's Irish setter, Toby, was going through his teething phase. Left alone one night, he demolished half of his master's manuscript for Of Mice and Men, eating through two months of work. And get this—Steinbeck didn't have any backup copies. But the author found it hard to stay angry with the puppy. "I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically," he wrote. "I didn't want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript I'm not sure is good at all." He just buckled down and rewrote the shredded chapters.


A 1967 photo of the Rolling Stones strolling through a park in London
Roger Jackson, Central Press/Getty Images

While the Rolling Stones were on tour in the U.S. in 1964, a fan gave guitarist Keith Richards a collie puppy named Ratbag. When Richards returned to the UK, rather than subject the pup to quarantine, he smuggled the animal through British customs under his coat. The dog would become one of Richards's most beloved companions, and a biographer would later write that the star "appeared to identify [with Ratbag] more than anybody else."


Bo Obama sits on the White House lawn.
Obama White House, Flickr // Public Domain

In April 2009, the Obamas adopted Bo, a 6-month-old Portuguese water dog. That summer, the White House put together an official baseball card loaded with fun facts about America's First Pooch. (For one: He can't swim.) You can still download the collectible card online.


Dogs can bring out the best in people, including political adversaries. While seated next to each other at a state dinner in Vienna in the early 1960s, First Lady Jackie Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev got to chatting about Strelka, the world-famous dog who had recently been sent into low-Earth orbit by the Soviet space program. Afterward, Khrushchev sent the Kennedys one of Strelka's newly born daughters. The puppy's name was Pushinka, which means fluffy in Russian.


A Weimaraner puppy stands in an office at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston's Museum of Fine Arts is currently training a Weimaraner pup named Riley to find unwanted pests that, if left unchecked, could harm priceless masterpieces. Riley is being taught to sniff out art-threatening insects like textile-eating moths and wood-boring beetles. "Pests are an ongoing concern for museums," deputy director Katie Getchell told The Boston Globe in January 2018. "It's exciting to think about this as a new way to address the problem." If Riley is able to do his job well, she said, other museums and archives that collect infestation-prone materials might be able to use trained dogs as a defense against bugs, too.


Guide dog puppies in training are led by their trainers.
Erik S. Lesser, Getty Images

Not all puppies have what it takes to become guide dogs. Guide dogs have to be healthy, confident, hardworking, and not easily distracted. At the end of the day, many pups just aren't cut out for this line of work—at Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit that trains and places seeing eye dogs in New York, only about 36 percent of trainee dogs make it. That's where Watson, the IBM supercomputer famous for winning Jeopardy, comes in. IBM has developed a new program for Watson that helps it predict how likely individual puppies are to graduate from Guiding Eyes's training school using data on the temperament, medical history, and genetics of the dogs as well as the personality traits of their trainers. The organization expects to improve its guide-puppy graduation rate by 20 percent using Watson's computing power.


A poodle puppy sits on a desk next to a man working on a laptop.

That puppy portrait hanging in your cubicle at work might be a bigger asset than you realized. For a 2012 Hiroshima University experiment on productivity, participants were asked to look at pictures from one of three categories: tasty food snapshots, pictures of adult animals, or photos of puppies and kittens. Then, they were asked to play a board game that required lots of precision. As it turned out, people who'd just seen puppies and kittens had an easier time concentrating on the task at hand than study subjects who saw other types of images.


A canine jawbone
Janssens et al., Journal of Archaeological Science (2018)

In 1914, archaeologists in Germany discovered the fossilized jawbone of a puppy that lived 14,000 years ago. According to a 2018 study on the specimen, the jaw probably belonged to a 27- or 28-week-old pup—and a sick one, at that. The teeth showed signs of canine distemper virus, a life-threatening disease that still has no cure. Analysis of the bone suggested that the animal first came down with the sickness at 19 weeks old. "Without adequate care," study co-author Luc Janssens noted in a press release, "a dog with a serious case of distemper will die in less than three weeks," yet this pup survived for another eight weeks. Even though the puppy wouldn't have been very useful to its prehistoric human owners, they kept it clean, warm, and well-fed for months, helping it survive for longer than it otherwise would have.


'Puppy' stands outside the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.

Since it opened in 1997, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao has been home to Puppy, a towering, flower-covered sculpture that artist Jeff Koons modeled after a young West Highland terrier. The 17-ton pooch owes its shape to a fabric-covered mesh that is topped with 37,000 live flowers. The 40-foot-tall, puppy-shaped garden is now regarded as a mascot for both the museum and the city itself.


A puppy plays with a toy at the Puppy Bowl.
Animal Planet

The fur-rocious Super Bowl spoof known as the Puppy Bowl made its debut on Animal Planet back in 2005. Viewers might be surprised to find out that unlike the real game, the Puppy Bowl isn't broadcast live. Instead, the contest is shot over the course of an entire week. The crew spends two days filming the dogs with the help of 100 or more canine wranglers. Afterward, they dedicate three more days shooting things like sponsored products and cheerleader cats. Once production finally wraps, the editing process takes three full months.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The first dog to play Lassie on film was really a "laddie." Specifically, he was a male Rough collie named Pal. As a pup, the dog had some behavior issues—little Pal was overly enthusiastic and drove his first owner crazy with nonstop barking. (Even more disconcerting was the puppy's habit of chasing down motorcycles, a pastime he never outgrew.) After animal trainer Henry Peck failed to make any progress with Pal, he referred the puppy's owner to a colleague by the name of Rudd Weatherwax, who was much more successful at training him. Pal's original owner eventually gave him to Weatherwax, and the rest is history. Under the trainer's guidance, Pal starred in seven Lassie movies, plus two episodes of the spinoff TV series. Decades after his passing, the Saturday Evening Post declared that Pal had enjoyed "the most spectacular canine career in film history."

iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
When German Scientists Tried to Rename Bats and Shrews, Hitler Threatened to Send Them to War
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski
iStock // Heinrich Hoffmann/Keystone Features/Getty Images // collage by Jen Pinkowski

In The Art of Naming (The MIT Press), Michael Ohl, a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin, delves into the art, science, language, and history of taxonomy. There are some 1.8 million known species—and scientists estimate that 100 million more await discovery. Every one will need a name. How does the process work? 

Ohl takes us into the field with the explorers and scientists at the forefront of naming the natural world, including Father Armand David, a French priest who was the first to describe the panda to the Western world; American paleontologists Edward Dinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who bitterly battled in the Bone Wars; and Polish biologist Benedykt Dybowski, whose unique naming system for crustaceans called gammarids (a.k.a. "scuds") resulted in tongue-twisters such as Cancelloidokytodermogammarus (Loveninsuskytodermogammarus) loveni.

In the excerpt below, Ohl tells the story of one of the little-known footnotes to World War II: When Adolf Hitler threatened the German biologists who wanted to rename bats and shrews. And, read on for the best bat nickname of all time: "bacon mouse."

—Jen Pinkowski


On March 3, 1942, a brief item with a rather peculiar headline appeared tucked away in the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper. "Fledermaus No Longer!" the bold letters proclaimed. The following short text was printed underneath:

"At its 15th General Assembly, the German Society for Mammalogy passed a resolution to change the zoologically misleading names 'Spitzmaus' [shrew] and 'Fledermaus' [bat] to 'Spitzer' and 'Fleder.' Fleder is an old form for Flatterer [one that flutters]. The Spitzmaus, as it happens, has borne a variety of names: Spitzer [one that is pointed], Spitzlein, Spitzwicht, Spitzling. Over the course of the conference, several important lectures were held in the auditorium of the Zoologisches Museum […]."

To this day, despite the problems announced by Germany's leading specialists on mammals on the pages of one of the capital's daily papers, fledermaus and spitzmaus remain the common German names for bats and shrews. Neither dictionaries nor specialized nature guides contain entries for fleder or spitzer (provided one disregards the primary definition of spitzer, which is a "small implement used for the sharpening of pencils").

Indeed, a swift response to the item in question arrived from an unexpected source. Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler's private secretary, sent a message on March 4, 1942, to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery. The missive contained remarkably unambiguous instructions from Hitler:

"In yesterday's newspapers, the Führer read an item regarding the changes of name ratified by the German Society for Mammalogy on the occasion of its 15th General Assembly. The Führer subsequently instructed me to communicate to the responsible parties, in no uncertain terms, that these changes of name are to be reversed immediately. Should members of the Society for Mammalogy have nothing more essential to the war effort or smarter to do, perhaps an extended stint in the construction battalion on the Russian front could be arranged. Should such asinine renamings occur once more, the Führer will unquestionably take appropriate measures; under no circumstance should terms that have become established over the course of many years be altered in this fashion."

There's no question that the "responsible parties" understood and responded to the injunction, which could hardly have been misinterpreted. On July 1, 1942, at least, a notice was printed in the Zoologischer Anzeiger—at that time, the "organ of the German Zoological Society"—that comprised a scant five lines. The notice has no byline and can most likely be attributed to the journal's publishers:

"Regarding the discussion [in earlier issues of the Zoologischer Anzeiger] about potential changes to the names 'Fledermaus' and 'Spitzmaus,' the Editors wish to make public that terms that have become established over the course of many years are not to be altered, following an announcement by the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture, as per the Führer's directive."

It's conceivable that Lammers forwarded Hitler's instructions (which had reached him by way of Bormann) to Bernhard Rust, the Reich Minister of Science, Education, and National Culture. Rust will then likely have ordered one of the "parties responsible" for the unpopular initiative to publish the retraction in the appropriate platform. The Zoologischer Anzeiger fit the bill, considering the fact that by 1941 it had already featured two articles debating whether the name spitzmaus should be changed.

What is the problem, though, that veteran scientists have with spitzmaus and fledermaus, those innocuous terms for the shrew and the bat? And how could it come to pass that Adolf Hitler—preoccupied as he was in 1942— should personally join in the campaign for the correct classification of these small mammals?


The common thread in these two unremarkable and familiar terms is of course the second word component, maus, or "mouse."

Fledermaus and spitzmaus … are (linguistically) first and foremost mice. By referencing certain characteristics in these compound words (fleder comes from flattern, "to flap"; spitz, or "point," refers to the shrew's pointy nose or rather head shape), it becomes possible to provide a clear name—or almost clear, at least, because there are many bat and shrew species, but more on that later.

Both names, of course, imply affiliation with mice, and that's the sticking point. In zoological terms, mice are a group of rodents known at the higher level of classification as Muroidea, "muroids" or the "mouse-like." The group includes quite the mix of animal groups, with occasionally curious names like zokor, blind mole-rat, spiny tree mouse, and Chinese pygmy dormouse, not to mention our pet hamsters and those domestic but unwelcome mice and rats. Common to all muroids are sundry and complex structural features in the skull, coupled of course with the oversized, continually growing incisors typical of rodents. Beyond that, although endless evolutionary gimmickry can revolve around this mouse theme (long or short legs, different fur colors and tail lengths, and much more), and even without biological expertise, most muroids tend to be identifiable as mice, if only vaguely.

Zoologically speaking, a mere mouse-like appearance is insufficient to denote a muroid. Instead, the specific anatomical features of the skull must be in evidence.

Field, house, and deer mice are familiar to many North Americans, although they typically live hidden away, and we don't often encounter them. These animals with the "mouse" base in their name are truly mice in the zoological sense.

The same cannot exactly be said for the bat and shrew—the fledermaus and spitzmaus—despite their names. Neither of them is even a rodent or, consequently, a muroid. Then what are they?

In the classification of mammals, a whole series of groupings is traditionally distinguished, usually assigned the rank of order within the class of mammals. Depending on scientific opinion, there are 25 to 30 of these orders of mammals. Rodents comprise one of these orders, to which muroids and several other groups of mammals belong.

Bats, meanwhile, are typical representatives of the order of flying mammals. Their scientific name is Chiroptera, from the Greek words chiros (hand) and pteros (wings). Chiroptera, then, means "hand-flier," which is a fitting name for bats and their closest relatives, flying foxes.

The systematic placement of the shrew, or spitzmaus, is determined in much the same way. They, too, fail to possess the mouse characteristics in question, although they do share traits with moles and hedgehogs, as well as with the solenodon (meaning "slotted tooth"), which is a venomous critter native exclusively to the Caribbean islands. They are now situated under the wondrous designation Eulipotyphla, but only since 1999. How they are related—along with ties to an array of other mammal families, such as tenrecs, desmans, and golden moles—has not been conclusively explained.

Experts have known for a long time—since Linnaeus's Systema Naturae at the latest—that neither bats nor shrews are related to mice, to which common parlance pays no heed. The fledermaus and spitzmaus comfortably maintain their spots in the lexicon.


One of the first mammal biologists to campaign for the standardization of German mammal names was Hermann Pohle. Born in Berlin in 1892, Pohle remained faithful to the city until his death and spent a large part of his life working at the natural history museum there. His career as a mammal biologist started early, when as a university student he worked as an unpaid hireling in the museum's famed mammal collection. Through diligence, endurance, and scientific acumen, he worked his way up to head curator of mammals. He thus held one of the most influential positions, of both national and international significance, in the field of systematic mammal research.

In 1926, Pohle—along with Ludwig Heck, the former director of the Berlin Zoo, and a number of other colleagues—founded the German Society for Mammalogy, of which he was the first head. Pohle thus had his finger on the pulse of mammal research, as it were, and he followed the history of the society over the next five decades "with keen interest," as one biographer noted.

In addition to his work as a researcher and curator of the mammal collection at Berlin's Museum für Naturkunde (Museum of Natural History), Pohle's interests also lay with German mammal names. Not only did he push for standardization of names, Pohle also campaigned to have existing names assessed for scientific plausibility and changed, should they not pass (his) zoological muster.

In 1942, Pohle published a summary article addressing the question, "How many species of mammals live in Germany?" He appended a comprehensive list of all German mammals, each with its correct "technical name," as Pohle called it, as well as its corresponding German name. When it came to the various species of spitzmaus (of which the Germans have eight, incidentally, despite the long-standing impression that there is "the" one and only shrew) and the 16 species of bats that have the base word "fledermaus" in their name, Pohle consistently uses alternative terms. The eight shrew species thus became waldspitzer, zwergspitzer, alpenspitzer, wasserspitzer, mittelspitzer, feldspitzer, gartenspitzer, and hausspitzer. For the bats, the base of their compound name was changed to fleder: teichfleder, langfußfleder, wasserfleder, and so on, all the way to a term of particular elegance, wimperfleder.

Pohle's article, which predates the society's 15th General Assembly and Hitler's emotional veto by more than a year, is a particularly interesting source because he also shares his actual motivations for the suggested changes. His emphatic objective is to see "the term 'Maus' disappear, responsible as it is for laypersons' wont to lump the animals together with actual mice."

In the estimation of these laypersons, mice are something "ugly and destructive that must be fought, or ideally exterminated." Shrews and bats, harmless as they are to humans, are thus subject to the same brutal fate. Pohle hopes for a "shift in perspective" to occur, once the endangered animals are no longer referred to as mice.

What to do, then? Pohle would prefer the term spitz for spitzmaus, but it's already been assigned to a dog breed. Rüssler could also work, only it already applies to some other insectivore. That leaves spitzer, a name that emphasizes the pointy head as a distinguishing characteristic and is still available.

Pohle wants a name for bats without "maus" but happily with a nod to the animals' flying ability. Most names of this kind are already employed for birds, and "flatterer" or "flutterer" could only logically be used for a certain population of bats, namely, those bad at flying. "Flieger" or "flyer," another hot candidate, is also in use by various other animal groups.

But why, Pohle asks the reader, would one even need to say "fledermaus," when "fleder" actually makes perfect sense? Pohle mentions that the original meaning of "fleder" was different, but few people were aware of this fact anymore.

On the off chance that he was correct in this assessment, let it be noted that fledermaus can be traced back to the 10th century, to the Old High German "vledern" or "flattern" (the infinitive form of "flatterer"). The image of the bat as a "fluttering mouse" has existed since this time in many languages, including "flittermouse" in English. A number of other German terms exist for bats. In some regions of Germany, such as Rhineland-Palatinate and Southern Hesse, the Old High German "fledarmus" is said to have been used to describe nocturnal creatures, such as moths. There, bats were apparently called "speckmaus," instead of fledermaus, because while hibernating, they could be seen hanging like pieces of bacon (speck) in the smoke.

Pohle's dedication to promoting the protection of bats and shrews through a bold name change reached its temporary culmination a year later, when—at the 15th General Assembly of the German Society for Mammalogy in Berlin—a resolution was passed on a universal and binding adoption of the spitzer- and fleder-based names Pohle had suggested. The results are known: Hitler was not amused.


We can only guess at what Hitler's actual motive was in issuing such drastic threats to prevent the name alterations proposed by the German Society for Mammalogy. It could have been his outrage that in 1942—hard times because of the war—leading German intellectuals were concerned with something so unimportant and banal as the appropriateness of animal names. Perhaps this anecdote is just a further example of Hitler's hostility toward intellectuals.

It is ultimately unclear, even, to what extent Hitler was the driving force behind this directive or whether this is a case of subordinates "working towards the Führer," as historian Ian Kershaw describes it. Conceivably, after reading the Berliner Morgenpost, Hitler may have remarked negatively regarding the zoologists' plans. His circle—in this case, Bormann—may have immediately interpreted this as "the Führer's will" and sprung to action accordingly. As for Pohle and his colleagues, it can't have mattered much whether the "invitation" to the Eastern Front came directly from Hitler or was communicated in an act of premature obedience.

Whatever the case may be, Pohle's suggested name changes did not fail because of Hitler's intervention, which presumably resonated as little with the German-speaking public as the original notice. Pohle failed because he wanted to take the basic idea of a standardized naming system out of the scientific context and transfer it into the realm of vernacular. Everyday German is not formally and officially regulated, and like every other vernacular, it follows different rules than scientific speech. It is shaped by a multitude of factors and influences that have their own unpredictable dynamic, which leads to some word usages changing while others stabilize.

In kindergarten, we learn that small, furry four-legged animals with a tail are "mice." This act of naming fulfills the exact function expected of it. It "tags" specific linguistic content—a meaning—that is generally understood. The difference between muroids and insectivores, which is important to zoologists, has no application in everyday confrontations with "mouse-like" animals and makes no difference to most people. A mouse is a mouse, whether a striped field mouse or a shrew.


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