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I have heard some cat owners speak of "belling the cat". What is this, and why would anyone do it to their cat?

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up vote 11 down vote accepted

Many pet owners that allow their cats to roam outside will often "bell them" to prevent the cat from being able to sneak up on (and subsequently kill) any local wildlife.

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doesn't always work I hear, some cats will sacrifice a paw to silence the bell while sneaking – ratchet freak Mar 18 '14 at 9:22
Contrarily, i removed the bell on her collar so she can be a more effective hunter of the garden insects. I figured it would be horrible for her not to be able to sneak effectively. – surfmadpig Aug 30 '14 at 4:57

It depends on how the term is used I think. I know the term from one of Aesop's fables, where a group of mice gathered together to figure out a solution to keep from being eaten by a cat. They decided to put a bell on the cat so that they'd hear it coming, and be able to run away from it in time. But, when it came time to get volunteers, no one would do it (the usual mumbling and excuses about why they couldn't do it but someone else should).

In this context "belling the cat" is an idiom to agree to an impossible task (or just one that no one will actually participate in). I think it was used in medieval times, referencing when people wanted to overthrow a ruler. I've never heard it actually being used myself.

If I had to guess a more modern use, I'd guess it's taken a more literal meaning, where people are talking about putting a bell on their cat so that they know where it is in their house. That way they know where it is, and if it's causing trouble. That's just a guess though.

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I looked up the fable, and it is actually called "Belling the Cat" – Spidercat Mar 17 '14 at 16:42

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