Despite its name, catgut is not made from cat intestines although a traditional, three-stringed musical instrument in Japan, the samisen (shamisen), is played by Geishas to accompany their songs in tea houses and its strings are or were made from the intestines of cats. Dr Morris in his book Cat World tells us that a bronze statue is dedicated to these cats. It was erected in front of the great Buddhist temple to Nichiren in the Yamanashi Prefecture on the directions of manufacturers of the Shamisen. He also tells us that on one occasion Geishas held a ceremonial service for the souls of felines who had died in the service of Japanese music.
Wikipedia does not confirm that the strings are made from catgut but the authors state that until 2006 cat skins were used in the drum section of the instrument to amplify the sound. The Independent newspaper states that the strings are made of silk but this appears to be incorrect. Perhaps Dr Morris’s research resulted in a confusion between cat skin used for the drum section and cat guts for the strings but I believe that he is correct.
In general, there appears to have been a deliberate attempt to cover up the fact that catgut is made out of the intestines of animals other than the cat, usually sheep or goat intestines but occasionally the intestines of cattle, hogs, horses or donkeys.
In the 17th century, Italian violin makers used sheepgut to make their strings. They kept the manufacturing technique to themselves and the source of violin strings remained a trade secret. They disseminated false information that the strings were made of catgut rather than sheepgut.
Another explanation why sheepgut was described as catgut is because of the noise that it made when it was plucked or scraped. Somebody thought that it sounded like a cat shrieking. For example, at the beginning of the 17th century, one author wrote of violin players “tickling the dried gutts [sic] of a mewing cat”. And later on an author wrote about his upset “at every twang of the cat-gut, as if he heard at the moment the wailings of the helpless animal that had been sacrificed to harmony”. The writings seem to illustrate the general attitude towards cats at that time when they were victims of persecution or torture and the sound of screaming cats was not unfamiliar.
Ultimately, there appears to have been a conspiracy to hide the fact that strings of instruments were made of sheepgut and not the guts of cats. Dr Morris doesn’t really explain where the motivation for this comes from except for the story about the sound produced. Catgut was used for tennis rackets when I was playing tennis in my 20s but once again, they were made from sheep intestines.
On further research on why it is called catgut I have discovered that the word “catgut” is derived from the term “kitgut” meaning the string used on a fiddle. The word “kit” is sometimes used to describe a kitten as it is a shortened version of the word “kitten”. This seems to be the connection between cats and catgut. Another possible origin of the word catgut is the caterwauling sound that cats make. It’s a wailing noise which is arguably similar to the sound made from the strings of a violin.
Catgut is also used for surgical ligatures and sutures and for the strings of archery bows. Natural gut strings are a byproduct of the meat industry and come from several animals including water buffalo, kangaroo, cattle and sheep. Most gut strings are made out of serosa which is the outermost layer of the intestines of cattle according to PETA.
Early guitars were made with catgut. Steel strings came out in about 1900. A higher tension can be obtained with steel strings and they are heavier which produces a louder sound.
The old tennis rackets using catgut required two cows to make enough material for the strings according to my research. I’ve also discovered that the father of surgeons and the originator of catgut is a man named Albucasis. He was a famous Muslim medical scholar and lived between 930-1013 A.D..
Some more on ‘cat products’