The domestication of cats is believed to date back some 9,500 years, and the practice of taking cats aboard boats and ships began not long afterwards. The Ancient Egyptians took cats on board Nile boats to catch birds in the thickets along the riverbanks. In the preliminary results of a genetic study published in September 2016, it was concluded that cats were also carried on trading ships to control rodents, and that practice was adopted by traders from other nations, even Vikings in northern Germany around the 8th to 11th century. This led to the spread of cats throughout the world, with the species eventually reaching nearly all parts of the world accessible by ship. Over the centuries their offspring developed into different breeds according to the climate in which they found themselves and the mates they took, as well as deliberate selection by humans. Phoenician cargo ships are thought to have brought the first domesticated cats to Europe in about 900 BC.
Sometimes worshipped as deities, cats have long had a reputation as magical animals and numerous myths and superstitions sprang up amongst the unusually superstitious seafaring community. They were considered to be intelligent and lucky animals, and a high level of care was directed toward them to keep them happy. Some sailors believed that polydactyl cats were better at catching pests, possibly connected with the suggestion that extra digits give a polydactyl cat better balance, important when at sea. In some places polydactyl cats became known as "ship's cats".
Cats were believed to have miraculous powers that could protect ships from dangerous weather. Sometimes, fishermen's wives would keep black cats at home too, in the hope that they would be able to use their influence to protect their husbands at sea. It was believed to be lucky if a cat approached a sailor on deck, but unlucky if it only came halfway, and then retreated. Another popular belief was that cats could start storms through magic stored in their tails. If a ship's cat fell or was thrown overboard, it was thought that it would summon a terrible storm to sink the ship and that if the ship was able to survive, it would be cursed with nine years of bad luck. Other beliefs included, if a cat licked its fur against the grain, it meant a hail storm was coming; if it sneezed it meant rain; and if it was frisky it meant wind.
Some of these beliefs are rooted in reality. Cats are able to detect slight changes in the weather, as a result of their very sensitive inner ears, which also allow them to land upright when falling. Low atmospheric pressure, a common precursor of stormy weather, often makes cats nervous and restless.
The prevalence of cats on ships has led to them being reported on by a number of noted seafarers. The outbreak of the Second World War, with the spread of mass communication and the active nature of the world's navies, also led to a number of ship's cats becoming celebrities in their own right.
Blackie was HMS Prince of Wales's ship's cat. During the Second World War, he achieved worldwide fame after Prince of Wales carried Prime Minister Winston Churchill across the Atlantic to NS Argentia, Newfoundland in August 1941, where he secretly met with the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt for several days in a secure anchorage. This meeting resulted in the declaration of the Atlantic Charter, but as Churchill prepared to step off Prince of Wales, Blackie approached. Churchill stooped to bid farewell to Blackie, and the moment was photographed and reported in the world media. In honour of the success of the visit, Blackie was renamed Churchill. Blackie survived the sinking of Prince of Wales by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service later that year, and was taken to Singapore with the survivors. He could not be found when Singapore was evacuated the following year and his fate is unknown (although there is a chance he may have died by then).
Camouflage was the ship's cat aboard a US Coast Guard LST in the Pacific theater, WWII. He was known for chasing enemy tracer rounds across the deck.
Chibbley was the ship's cat aboard the tall ship Picton Castle. She was rescued from an animal shelter and circumnavigated the world five times. Picton Castle’s role as a training ship resulted in Chibbley being introduced to a large number of visitors and becoming a celebrity in her own right, receiving her own fan mail. Chibbley died on November 10, 2011, in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. She had sailed over 180,000 miles at sea.
Convoy was the ship's cat aboard HMS Hermione. He was so named because of the number of times he accompanied the ship on convoy escort duties. Convoy was duly listed in the ship's book and provided with a full kit, including a tiny hammock where he would sleep. He was killed along with 87 of his crew mates when Hermione was torpedoed and sunk on 16 June 1942 by German submarine U-205.
Emmy was the ship's cat on RMS Empress of Ireland. She was an orange tabby cat who never missed a voyage. However, on 28 May 1914, Emmy tried to escape the ship. The crew could not coax her aboard and Empress of Ireland left without her, which was regarded as a terrible omen. She was reportedly last seen on the roof of the shed at Pier 27, watching her ship sail out of Quebec City. Early the next morning Empress of Ireland collided with SS Storstad while steaming through fog at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and rapidly sank, killing over 1,000 people. Some have believed it's possible that Emmy may have somehow foreseen the ship's demise to be the reason why she refused to board her that day.
Felix was the ship's cat aboard Mayflower II when she set sail from Devon, England, to Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1957 to symbolize the solidarity between the UK and the US following World War II. He was given his own life jacket and once suffered a broken paw after a mishap. The paw was set by the ship's doctor. Photos and stories about Felix appeared in National Geographic, Life, and Yankee magazine after his arrival in the US. The cat and the rest of the crew marched in a New York ticker tape parade and toured the East Coast that summer. He was eventually adopted by the cabin boy's girlfriend, Ann Berry, and settled in Waltham, Massachusetts. The current captain of the Mayflower II wrote a children's book about Felix entitled Felix and his Mayflower II Adventures. The book was published during the celebration of the ship's fiftieth anniversary at Plimoth Plantation.
Jenny was Titanic's ship cat, being mentioned in the accounts of several of the crew members who survived the fateful 1912 maiden voyage. She was transferred from Titanic's sister ship Olympic, giving birth in the week before the ship left Southampton. The galley is where Jenny and her kittens normally lived, being cared for by the victualling staff who fed them kitchen scraps. Stewardess Violet Jessop later wrote in her memoir that the cat "laid her family near Jim, the scullion, whose approval she always sought and who always gave her warm devotion." Jenny and her kittens went down with the ship, at least in theory, however a stoker named Jim Mulholland reported seeing them leave the ship before it even began the voyage, possibly having foreseen the disaster.
Kiddo seemed to have stowed away on the airship America, when she left from Atlantic City, New Jersey, in an attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1910. Kiddo was upset at first by the experience, but settled in and evidently, was better at predicting bad weather than the barometer. The airship's engines failed, and the small crew and Kiddo abandoned the America for lifeboats when they sighted the Royal Mail steamship Trent, near Bermuda. Kiddo then was retired from being a ship's cat and was taken care of by Edith Wellman Ainsworth, the daughter of the American journalist, explorer, and aviator, Walter Wellman, who made the daring attempt.
Mrs. Chippy was the ship's cat aboard Endurance, the ship used by Sir Ernest Shackleton for his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. When the ship was lost, having become trapped and eventually crushed in pack ice, Shackleton ordered the sled dogs and Mrs. Chippy shot, as Shackleton had decided that the animals could not be kept during the arduous journey ahead.
Nansen was the ship's cat on Belgica, which was used for the Belgian Antarctic Expedition. He was brought on board by cabin boy Johan Koren, and was named after Fridtjof Nansen. He died on 22 June 1898, and was buried in the Antarctic.
Peebles was the ship's cat aboard HMS Western Isles. Another cat who became a favourite of the ship's crew, he was known to be particularly intelligent and would shake the hands of strangers when they entered the wardroom.
Pooli served aboard a United States attack transport during the Second World War.
Rinda was the ship's cat on the Norwegian cargo ship SS Rinda, which was torpedoed and sunk during World War II. He was rescued, along with the surviving crew by the naval trawler HMT Pict and remained on board HMT Pict, being given the name Rinda after his/her previous ship.
Simon was the ship's cat of HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident in 1949, and was wounded in the bombardment of the ship which killed 25 of Amethyst’s crew, including the commanding officer. He soon recovered and resumed killing rats and keeping up the crew's morale. He was appointed to the rank of 'Able Seacat' Simon and became a celebrity after the ship escaped the Yangtze and returned to Britain. He later succumbed to an infection and died shortly after. Tributes poured in and his obituary appeared in The Times. He was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the only cat ever to earn the award, and was buried with full naval honours.
Tarawa was a kitten rescued from a pillbox during the Battle of Tarawa by the United States Coast Guard and named Tarawa. She was a mascot aboard an LST, but did not get along with the LST's other mascot, a dog named Kodiak, and jumped ship ashore.
Tiddles was the ship's cat on a number of Royal Navy aircraft carriers. He was born aboard HMS Argus, and later joined HMS Victorious. He was often seen at his favourite station, on the aft capstan, where he would play with the bell-rope. He eventually travelled over 30,000 miles (48,000 km) during his time in service.
Trim was the ship's cat on a number of the ships under the command of Matthew Flinders during voyages to circumnavigate and map the coastline of Australia during 1801–03. He became a favourite of the crew and was the first cat to circumnavigate Australia. He remained with Flinders until death. A statue to Trim was later erected in his honour, and he has been the subject of a number of works of literature. A statue sits on a window sill on the outside of the State Library, in Sydney, Australia.
U-boat was another ship's cat aboard a Royal Navy vessel in the Second World War, who would take shore leave whenever his ship came into port. He would spend days on shore, usually returning only just before his ship sailed. One day, U-boat failed to return in time for roll call and his ship was forced to sail. As she pulled away from the quay, U-boat was seen running down the dock after the departing ship. He made a death-defying leap onto the ship and succeeded in making it aboard. He was reported to be undaunted by his experience, proceeding to wash himself on deck. The crew members were reportedly delighted their good luck charm had returned.
Previously named Oscar, he was the ship's cat of the German battleship Bismarck. When she was sunk on 27 May 1941, only 116 out of a crew of over 2,200 survived. Oscar was picked up by the destroyer HMS Cossack (ironically one of the ships responsible for destroying Bismarck). Cossack herself was torpedoed and sunk a few months later, on 24 October, killing 159 of her crew, but Oscar again survived to be rescued, and was taken to Gibraltar. He became the ship's cat of HMS Ark Royal, which was torpedoed and sunk in November that year. Oscar was again rescued, but it was decided at that time to transfer him to a home on land. By now known as Unsinkable Sam because of surviving the three sinking-ships, he was given a new job as mouse-catcher in the Governor General's of Gibraltar office buildings. He eventually returned to the UK and spent the rest of his life at the 'Home for Sailors'. A portrait of him hangs in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.
Halifax was the name given to Alvah and Diana Simon's ship's cat who was found in the port of Halifax, on their way to winter at Tay Bay in 1994, on Roger Henry. The cat spent all of the time iced in on the boat with Alvah, when Diana had to leave for family purposes. Alvah Simon's book North To The Night describes his adventure in the ice with Halifax the cat, who ended up having half an ear taken away by frostbite.
The Royal Navy banned cats and other pet animals from all ships on the ocean in 1975 on hygiene grounds.
Cats are still present on many private ships in modern times, such as Toolbox on board the second Kalmar Nyckel.
American sailor Robin Lee Graham sailed with a number of cats on Dove and Return of Dove during his solo circumnavigation journey which began in 1965.
There are three books with the title "The Ship's Cat", by Jock Brandis, Richard Adams and Alan Aldridge.
In a central episode in Jan de Hartog's novel The Captain, taking place on board a ship engaged in the dangerous Murmansk Convoys in the Second World War, a young officer is killed in an effort to save the ship's cat and her playful kittens during a Luftwaffe attack on the ship. This profoundly affects the main protagonist, the ship's captain, and is one of the factors leading to his later becoming a conscientious objector.
A modern, fictional example is that of Jones, from the 1979 film Alien. Lt. Ripley is so attached to a tabby cat that she makes a specific point of rescuing him from the exploding Nostromo.
In the video game Uncharted Waters: New Horizons, getting a ship's cat prevents rodent infestations and their attendant drain on food supplies.
"Below Decks" was a fictitious cat aboard the submarine USS Miami. Shortly after she was commissioned in 1990, one of the ship's radiomen with a penchant for comedic postings placed a "missing cat" poster in the ship's passageway while the ship was underway. The poster described the cat as a black and white cat, about one year old, and answering to the name "Below Decks."
A number of science fiction writers have transferred the institution of a ship's cat to interstellar spaceships of the far future. One of the earlier examples is Cordwainer Smith's short story "The Game of Rat and Dragon". In her novel The Zero Stone, Andre Norton features ship cats which are also telepathic. David Weber's Honorverse novels feature 'treecats' that can bond with naval officers and accompany them aboard spaceships, and at least one instance of a ship having a real cat aboard, the cat in question was a Maine Coon named Dicey. Dicey was owned by the Admiral's steward. Joe Haldeman's Forever War also features a ship's cat.
Spot, a cat owned by Lt. Commander Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, could be considered the ship's cat of the Enterprise-D, despite not being the only cat aboard the ship.
Cat, from the British sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, is another example. The character has no name other than "The Cat" or simply "Cat". He is the humanoid descendant of a modern domestic cat called Frankenstein who had been Dave Lister's pregnant pet cat. He may be the last remaining member of his species, Felis sapiens.
The children's book The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber tells the story of a cat who owns an old Cornish fisherman who accompanies him on sea voyages.
In the Arthur Ransome book We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea, a shipwrecked kitten becomes the ship's cat of the "Goblin". Named Sinbad after the fictional sailor of that name, the cat also appears in the next book in the series, Secret Water.
In an episode of Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Gomer brings a pregnant cat on board a navy ship while on sea maneuvers.
Fish Head is the eponymous character in a 1954 children's book by Jean Fritz, a cat who is known in a fishing town for stealing fish from the local market. He accidentally ends up aboard a ship in an attempt to flee the angry store clerk. While at sea, he tangles with the captain and struggles to earn his 'sea legs', and in the end, becomes a member of the crew.
In Scott Lynch’s Red Seas Under Red Skies, sailors' superstition is such that they will mutiny against a captain who brings no cat on their ship.
Tom Cat of the Tom and Jerry franchise was sometimes portrayed as a ship's cat in a few episodes, and so had other cat-characters of the franchise.
The Alan Lewrie series of books written by Dewey Lambdin prominently features three cats as the pets of Captain Alan Lewrie, RN. The first, William Pitt, is inherited by Lewrie when he takes command of his first ship. Toulon, his second cat, is a remembrance of Lewrie's narrow escape from the carnage of Toulon during the early part of the Napoleonic Wars. His third cat, Chalky, is a gift from his half-Indian son.