Please note this article contains descriptions of a graphic nature which may cause offence or distress.
This article covers a brief foray into the linguistic history of cats in everyday language, together with a detailed description of the procedure used in removing the skin from a small mammal.
Throughout history the cat has had a close relationship with humans. From being a figure of worship through being linked with witchcraft and nefarious practices to the loved family pet of today, cats have run the gamut of human reactions. If ever an animal had good reason to be wary of us, it is the cat. Loved and loathed in equal measure, such strength of opinion has inevitably led the cat to become intertwined in history, folklore and language.
This is a money digging world of ours; and, as it is said, 'there are more ways than one to skin a cat'
- Way down East; or, Portraitures of Yankee Life by Seba Smith, circa 1854
'She was wise, subtle, and knew more than one way to skin a cat'
- A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain in 1889
Cats and Language
Not enough room to swing a cat
This saying actually comes from the time of Nelson's Navy. One of the ways discipline was enforced upon a Royal Navy ship was with the 'Cat o' nine tails', this being a whip with nine strands. Each strand would have knots along the length, often embedded with small pieces of lead. When sentenced to be punished in this fashion, the condemned man actually had to make the cat o' nine tails himself the night before being punished. RN ships were crowded places below decks, where space was extremely restricted. Therefore, punishment took place above decks because there was not enough room to swing a cat o' nine tails below deck.
Letting the cat out of the bag
Taken to mean giving away a secret, this saying has many possible roots. One of these is that in the Middle Ages, people would take piglets to market in a sack. This was to avoid the quite funny but tiresome sight of piglets running freely around a crowded market. Catching piglets is quite difficult, involving lots of running around, falling down and wrestling, complicated by the fact that the pig enjoys it. So piglets tended to stay firmly in the bag. Unscrupulous traders might take advantage of this by substituting the piglet with a cat. Although the bag might appear to contain a piglet, cats tend to struggle more and are equipped with excellent tools for escaping in the shape of very sharp teeth and claws. Thus, our disreputable trader had to keep a firm hold of his sack to avoid letting the cat out of the bag.
What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?
This probably comes from medieval practice in the Middle East where it was common to cut off a thief's hand and tear out a liar's tongue. The severed body parts were often served to the animals.
Busier than a three-legged cat in a sandbox
Probably more modern in origin, this phrase refers to someone being extremely busy and links to the obvious visual gag.
Catcalls or caterwauling
This dates back to Shakespearean times when audiences would voice their disapproval at the stage by hissing or making cat noises.
This is a children's game in which two players alternately stretch a looped string over their fingers in such a way as to produce different designs. In medieval Europe, people believed that cats could bring fertility. Newly married couples would put a cat in a string cradle and carry it around the house in a ritual ceremony in order to help bring about an early family.
Curiosity killed the cat
Not as obvious as it might seem. Originally the saying was 'care' kills the cat, when care meant worry. The saying actually meant worrying too much was bad for your health and recognised that cats were noted for being careful.
Fight like Kilkenny cats
The story goes that in Kilkenny, Ireland, bored soldiers would tie two cats together for sport until they killed each other. This is a popularised limerick about Kilkenny cats:
'There wanst was two cats of Kilkenny
Each thought there was one cat too many
So they fought and they fit
And they scratched and they bit
'Til instead of two cats there weren't any.'
So the saying relates to a fight where both sides are destroyed.
Taken to mean someone who is incredibly angry or upset, this is an example of how cats were linked to witchcraft. If a pregnant woman was having a painful pregnancy, it was said that she had been cursed by a witch and would give birth to kittens that were clawing at her in the womb. Since a woman would be rather put out at the prospect of giving birth to kittens, she would be liable to become hysterical.
There's more than one way to skin a cat
Meaning that there may be lots of ways to solve the same problem, it is likely that this phrase has its origins not with cats, but with catfish. Catfish have very tough skins which are difficult to remove.
How to Skin a Catfish
The following method is illegal in the UK, as it involves cruel practices, but it is still carried out in many parts of the world.
- The catfish is attached to the end of a pole by a string around the neck.
- The catfish is then dunked into boiling water to soften the skin (while still alive).
- It is then lifted out of the water and dipped in a vat of hot wax (quite often still alive).
- The catfish is then quickly dipped in cold water to harden the wax.
- The wax is pulled off removing the boiled skin with it.
Now the catfish is ready to cook
What? I've read all this way and it's not even about skinning cats?
Isn't life educational. Actually, 'Skinning the cat' is also a gymnastic exercise where the gymnast, suspended by the arms from a horizontal pole, swings his legs and feet between his arms and performs a revolution. The reference to skinning cats may come from the fact that the exercise looks like the gymnast is turning himself inside out or it may derive from the pain experienced by amateurs performing the same trick.
But I Actually Do Want to Skin a Cat
You do realise that you'd better have a good reason or people might start avoiding you in the street? Why would you want to skin a cat? Well, you could be an anatomy or physiology student. At least one College in the US uses cats for dissection purposes. Freely available from cat shelters and vets, there is a ready supply of carcasses available due to cats' high breeding rate leading to large numbers of unwanted pets. There is also the possibility that you live in the Far East, where cats are not regarded as pets but as pests. In some areas, cat is a delicacy and part of the food chain. The procedure outlined below is applicable to virtually any mammal. Taxidermists have to remove an animal's skin prior to mounting and would need to take great care in doing so in order not to detract from the finished result.
Finding a Suitable Specimen
Visit your vet. Tell him what you intend to do and why. Most vets will at this point invite you to leave the premises and may in fact call the police. However, he may give you the carcass of a cat that has recently been put down. This cat may have been humanely put down by being placed in a hyperbaric chamber where the air was slowly pumped out, asphyxiating the cat, or it may have been given a lethal injection. This is a slightly different technique to that used in euthanasia, but the reasons for doing so may be the same. Equally, contacting a taxidermy society may provide a good source.
If your vet has turned down your request, try looking out for roadkill. These are unfortunate animals that have been knocked down and killed in the street by passing traffic. Using these animals arguably does the owner a favour. Do make every effort to find the owner. Some cats may have a name collar. Others may have a small electronic chip embedded under the skin which a vet can scan to reveal the owner's name and address. Much better the vet finds it than have an 'oops' moment when you are halfway through skinning it.
Some owners may be prepared to live in ignorance. Instead of being presented by the mangled corpse of their precious pet, they can fondly imagine that little Tiddles has merely gone walkabout and may still return one day. This isn't really your decision to make though, so you really should try to find the owner. However, try to look for carcasses that are not too badly mangled, as this may make the skinning process more complicated.
Of course, you may own a cat yourself. Now you may have reason to look forward to the day your cat breathes its last1. Remember all those ruined couches? The hairball in your shoes? The portions of rats and birds strategically hidden around the house? What better way to remember your feline companion than making a catskin cushion cover?
OK, You've Got Your Cat
Make sure it really is dead. Shake it, open a tin of tuna and as a last test, put on your best suit and stand at the other side of the room. If the cat doesn't move, you can safely assume it has shuffled off its mortal coil.
Look Away Now If You Have a Weak Stomach
Lie the cat on its back on a flat, easy to clean surface. Taking a small pair of sharp scissors, start to make a cut at the xiphoid process. This is the hollow at the lowest point of the front of the ribcage, in the centre. Feel for the point on yourself now. Do you feel the natural hollow where your bottom ribs join the sternum? That is where you need to start cutting2. Snip a shallow cut. Insert the rounded blade of the scissors just under the surface and cut up the way, in a straight line to the neck. From the neck, cut in a line towards the right corner of the mouth. Repeat the process by cutting down along the belly to reach the pubic bone (part of the pelvis). The long cut you have just made is called the ventral cut. Snip down the inside of each leg to the knee and then down to the dew claw in a smooth, clean line. At the dew claw3, make a cut around the circumference of the leg, taking care not to nick any tendons.
Reaching into the ventral cut, carefully tease the skin away from the underlying muscle or bone until the skin has been freed from the body of the cat, but is still held at the head and anus. You will notice a cotton-like, fibrous material that ties the skin to the flesh. This is called the superficial fascia. Be careful to only remove the skin and not the tissue. Particular problem areas will be the flanks, the neck, the shins and particularly the head, when you get to it. Take your time and ease the skin away in the difficult areas.
Now that the skin is mostly free, it's time to start cutting again. Using the scissors, start to cut down from the pubic bone past either side of the sex organs. Cut around either side of the perineum (genitalia and anus) towards the tail, thus effectively circling this part of the cat's anatomy. Then cut the skin between the tail and the anus, thus leaving a ring of fur around the perineum. Make a cut down the length of the tail and peel the skin away.
At this point, decide if you really want to skin the head. Skinning heads is quite delicate work, and the finished pelt will of course have a face. Some may think this gives your cushion cover 'character', but most people will consider it gross. So are you sure you want to do this? If erring on the side of decorum, make a cut around the neck of the cat, thus freeing the skin entirely from the carcass.
I Want to Know How to Skin The Head
OK. Skin the head carefully. From the cut you made earlier to the corner of the mouth, peel the skin away from the base of the ears. At the base of the ears, feel for the auditory canal and cut it, leaving the muscle attached to the skull. Peel the rest of the skin away until you reach the eye sockets. Take care at this point. Using a scalpel, release the skin from around the sockets, leaving the eyelids on the carcass. At the mouth, cut close to the bone to release the lips. Leave the nose on the pelt by cutting deeply into the flesh around the nose.
You have skinned your first cat.
Now wash your hands.