Earliest Cat Flap in Existence?

Is the hole in the door below the astronomical clock of Exeter Cathedral, Exeter, England, UK the earliest existing cat flap? The trouble is it is not exactly a cat flap because there is no flap. It is a cat entrance and exit if we are going to be boringly accurate. But this cat entrance and exit dates back to around 1600 or the early 1600s.

Earliest existing cat flap Exeter, UK

Earliest cat flap, Exeter Cathedral. Hole cut around 1600.


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The door is below a famous astronomical clock. This is no coincidence. The clock’s mechanism was oiled with animal fat, which attracted mice. The cat was an employee of the cathedral paid a penny a week for his services in ridding the area of mice. An important role. This information is available in a leaflet at the cathedral. This cat was clearly an indoor/outdoor cat!

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Some say that the well-known nursery rhyme, Hickory Dickory Dock, is based on the mice of the Exeter Cathedral astronomical clock:

Hickory, dickory, dock,
The mouse ran up the clock.
The clock struck one,
The mouse ran down,
Hickory, dickory, dock.

The earliest version of the rhyme was first published in 1744.

That leads us to Sir Isaac Newton, the man who invented the theory of gravity. He loved cats and had a hole cut into his study door or attic door or barn door to let his cat come and go. Isaac Newton lived from 25 December 1642 to 20 March 1727 so his cat flap…cat entrance/exit…was not the first.

Apparently the first mention of a cat flap is in a poem of around 1300 by Hugo von Trimberg who refers to a ‘cat window’ in an abbey gate.

There is a painting from the mid-15th century i.e. 1400s which is known as the Madonna della Gattaiola (“Our Lady of the Cat Door”). It seems that this painting was used as a door and because of that somebody had cut a hole in the bottom of it for a cat to pass through. It was a door, apparently, to a church’s sacristy. Also, there appears to be a reference to a hole in the door for a cat to pass through in Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale from Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century.

Now….I wonder when the first ‘flap’ was added to the hole…

Photo: © Copyright Julian P Guffogg and licensed for reuse under a creative commons licence.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 74-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare. If you want to read more click here.

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8 Responses

  1. Ruth (Monty's Mom) says:

    You don’t see many cat flaps in the USA. But I can understand why people want them. Out then in. In and back out. I can get a workout just satisfying Monty’s desire to be on the other side of a door. Cats deplore a closed door. It’s not so much about being in or out for him sometimes as it is about going in and out. Repeatedly. After about the fifth time I usually put a stop to it and leave him inside.

    I never knew the origin of Hickory Dickory Dock. That is so cool!

  2. Laura says:

    Does anyone have a picture of Sir Isaac Newton’s door with the flap in it? There are supposed to be two holes in it, one for a big cat and one for a small one. Don’t know how valid this is though.

    • Michael says:

      Hi Laura. I don’t think there is a picture of Sir Isaac Newton’s cat flap. I really don’t. It doesn’t exist anymore, I presume, and therefore there cannot be a photograph of it and I guess no one saw a reason to draw or paint it in Newton’s time. I’d love to see it! I have searched myself without success (for the time being). I may renew the search from time to time. If you see a picture, please tell me 😉

  3. StephanieF says:

    I saw a cat hole cut into the door of the servants’ attic in the 14th century Aberconwy House in Conway, Wales. Not sure when the hole was cut, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was original.

    • admin says:

      You may have found a cat flap that is much earlier than the one I referred to and still existing. Thanks a lot for telling me.

  4. admin says:

    Hi Ruth, I have a horrible feeling that we might have gone backwards (except for veterinary work but excluding US vets!) since the 16th century with respect to the domestic cat.

  5. Ruth aka Kattaddorra says:

    How very interesting! I always thought Sir Isaac Newton invented the whole concept of the cat flap, but he must simply have come up with the idea to put a flap on the hole already made for cats to come and go.
    I suppose in those days when rodents were rife inside and around houses it made sense for the cats to be free to come and go to catch them and there would be no litter trays of course so cats would need access to outdoors at all times.
    What a far cry from the life cats lead now, especially the ones kept strictly indoors and totally denied their deep instinct to hunt as they were born to do.
    It seems the more progress the human race makes the more of their natural life the animals lose.

  1. December 7, 2012

    […] This is another very old cat flap – well “cat exit”. I don’t know the date but it looks like the 18th century to me. I have a page on the earliest known cat flap which is in Exeter Cathedral, England. […]

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