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 instestines.
Some more on ‘cat products’