The Curious Case of the Missing Cat. Why Isn’t Feline in the Chinese Zodiac?


The Chinese zodiac is based on a 12 year cycle, with each year represented by an animal. This zodiac has been an important part of Chinese culture for centuries, used to determine one’s fortune and personality based on the animal sign of the year they were born. The zodiac includes 12 animals: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. However, one animal that is notably missing from the Chinese zodiac is the cat. The absence of the cat has sparked many myths and theories over the years.

Origins of the Chinese Zodiac

The origins of the Chinese zodiac can be traced back over 2,000 years ago to the Han Dynasty. According to mythological stories, the Jade Emperor summoned all the animals in the kingdom for a race across a river to determine the order of the zodiac. The twelve animals that came to bid him farewell were the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. These twelve animals became the signs of the Chinese zodiac in the exact order that they finished the race.

The cat and the bat were notable exceptions. According to folklore, the cat was tricked by the rat into missing the race and did not make it into the zodiac. The bat arrived too late after the selection was already finished. There are various legends around the cat’s exclusion, which we will explore in more detail later.

The Chinese zodiac and its mythological origins date back to the Spring and Autumn period around 500 BCE. The twelve animal signs were part of a calendar system that helped people track days and years. It became tied to astrology and utilized to determine personality types and compatibility.


Why Were These 12 Animals Chosen?

According to Chinese folklore, the Jade Emperor organized a race across a river to select 12 animals for the zodiac. He invited all the animals in the kingdom, but only 12 showed up to participate. These 12 animals were the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

There were certain criteria used to select these 12 animals. First, they needed to be animals that were familiar to the ancient Chinese and part of their daily lives. They also needed to represent a range of species – mammals, reptiles, birds and mythical creatures like the dragon. Additionally, the animals were chosen for the positive characteristics they embodied – the ox for diligence, the tiger for bravery, the rabbit for vigilance, etc. Their innate abilities and personalities were seen as influences that could pass to people born in their years.

The order of the animals in the race determined the zodiac sequence. According to the myth, the rat won first place by jumping ahead on the ox’s back right before crossing the finish line. The Jade Emperor was so impressed by the rat’s clever move that he honored it by placing it first in the zodiac.

So in summary, the selection criteria emphasized familiarity, diversity, positive traits, and order of finish in the great race. This resulted in the distinctive group of 12 animals that came to represent the Chinese zodiac.

The Cat’s Absence in Folklore

There are a few prominent myths and folktales that explain why cats were excluded from the Chinese zodiac.

One story involves a great race held by the Jade Emperor to determine the zodiac animals. According to legend, the cat and rat were friends, but the rat tricked the cat by telling him the wrong date for the race. As a result, the cat slept in and missed his chance to cross the finish line with the other animals (Source). The Jade Emperor decided not to include the cat for missing the race.

Another folktale states that the rat deliberately sabotaged the cat by giving him bad advice so that the cat arrived too late. The cat swore vengeance on the rat, resulting in the longstanding animosity between cats and rats (Source). In this version, the cat was excluded for being fooled by the rat’s trickery.

These myths helped explain the cat’s absence from the zodiac and the natural rivalry between felines and rodents. The stories emphasize how the rat’s deception led to the cat’s downfall in missing his chance to be included.

Theories on the Cat’s Exclusion

There are several academic theories that attempt to explain why cats were excluded from the Chinese zodiac.

One theory states that cats were too prideful and self-centered to participate in the race that determined the zodiac animals. According to folklore, the Jade Emperor invited animals to his palace and declared that the order in which they arrived would determine the zodiac. The cat was confident it would arrive first, so it took a nap instead of hurrying to the palace. By the time it awoke, the race was over and the rat had claimed first place (source).

Another popular theory is that the traits associated with cats, such as cunningness and opportunism, were seen as negative by the ancient Chinese. The zodiac animals were meant to exemplify positive virtues, so the cat did not make the cut (source).

Some scholars believe the cat’s exclusion had more practical origins. Cats were not as vital to ancient Chinese agriculture as other domesticated animals like the ox and horse. The zodiac animals were chosen for their importance and usefulness, which left the cat out (source).

While the exact reason is unknown, these theories provide insight into why cats may have been left off the Chinese zodiac.

The Cat in Other Cultures

The cat’s place in Chinese culture stands in contrast to its status in many other cultures around the world. In ancient Egypt, cats were revered and even worshipped as representations of gods and goddesses. The goddess Bastet had the head of a cat and embodied protection, fertility, and motherhood. Cats were mummified and buried with their owners upon death. In fact, the punishment for killing a cat in ancient Egypt was death.

In Japanese culture, beckoning cats or maneki-neko are believed to bring good fortune to businesses. These cat figurines with an upright paw are commonly seen in storefronts and businesses. They originate from a legend about a cat who saved a feudal lord from being struck by lightning by beckoning him over. The upright paw is seen as a gesture of welcoming and good luck.

Many Scandinavian cultures feature legends about a cat king named Kurre who ruled with wisdom and benevolence over humans and animals. Some European folktales portray the cat as a helper, guide, or magical creature. Cats are also thought to be the favored pet of witches in European folklore.

Overall, the cat has been viewed much more positively in other cultures compared to China. Revered as gods, good luck charms, and magical helpers, cats were seen as auspicious figures. In contrast, Chinese folklore often portrays the cat as greedy, lazy, foolish or untrustworthy. This differing cultural perception likely contributed to the cat’s exclusion from the Chinese zodiac.

Modern Efforts to Include Cats

In recent years, there have been petitions and campaigns to try to officially include cats in the Chinese zodiac. One notable effort was a petition started in 2016 to revive the cancelled DreamWorks animated film “Zodiac,” which would have told the story of a cat determined to become part of the zodiac.

The petition stated that the film could “highlight the importance of redemption, second chances, and equal representation” and implored DreamWorks to revive production. While the petition did not succeed in reviving the film, it gained over 21,000 supporters calling for more positive cat representation. (

Some modern cat shelters and adoption organizations also use the plight of the excluded cat to raise awareness and support for adopting homeless cats today. Groups like Catty Cat Catuary remind people that while cats missed their chance at the zodiac long ago, they still need love and care in the present day.

Cats in the Year of the Rabbit

In Vietnamese astrology, the cat is associated with the fourth place in the zodiac rather than the rabbit. This means that 2023 is considered the Year of the Cat rather than the Year of the Rabbit in Vietnam (

The folklore behind this is that the cat is said to be walking in the footsteps of the rabbit, always following right behind. This is thought to explain some of the similarities between cat and rabbit attributes, including sensitivity, creativity, and luck. However, the cat is also seen as faster, livelier, more outgoing, and more opportunistic than the introverted and serene rabbit.

So in Vietnamese culture, those born in cat years embody some rabbit-like traits but with a more dynamic, quick-witted, and self-assured nature. The cat is seen as relying more on its own talents, skills, and resourcefulness to succeed rather than relying solely on luck and avoiding risk like the rabbit. So the cat has a bold streak but also possesses the empathy, creativity and intuition of the rabbit it trots behind.

The Cat’s Popularity Today

Despite historically not being included in the Chinese zodiac, cats have become immensely popular pets in modern Chinese culture. According to a report by Pethadoop, a platform specializing in China’s pet industry, cats accounted for 59.5% of all pets among 30,000 surveyed households in 2021, making them the most popular pet in urban China (Source). In 2022, it was estimated there were around 65.4 million pet cats living in urban Chinese households, showing a steady rise over previous years (Source).

This immense popularity is likely due to cats being relatively low maintenance pets that are well-suited for busy urban lifestyles. Their small size also makes them ideal for smaller apartments. Modern Chinese pop culture has also embraced cats, with social media platforms like Weibo flooded with cute cat videos and memes. Cat cafes, where people can interact with cats in a casual setting, have also become trendy hangout spots. While they missed their chance to be included in the zodiac, cats have decidedly won over the hearts of modern Chinese people.


As we’ve explored, there are various theories as to why cats may have been excluded from the Chinese zodiac. Several folk tales suggest the rat deliberately tricked or excluded the cat from attending the Jade Emperor’s banquet. These stories highlight the tension between cats and rats, portraying them as enemies. Other myths point to the idea that cats were too proud or aloof to be included. There also may have been more practical reasons, as cats were not as useful to humans as other domesticated animals at the time.

While we may never know the exact origins, what’s clear is that the cat has become extremely popular in modern culture. People enjoy dressing up their cats, depicting them in art, and sharing them online. So even if cats missed their chance thousands of years ago, they undoubtedly have a strong place in society today. The mystique around their omission from the zodiac may even add to their appeal and interest. So the cat’s exclusion from the zodiac may have been unfortunate, but it does not seem to have dampened appreciation of our feline friends.

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