Why Do We Say “It’s Raining Cats and Dogs”?

(Last Updated On: November 3, 2022)

Every now and then, the weather decides that it really doesn’t like you and it will rain a bunch. Then, while you’re at work you have that one coworker who just has to say it’s raining cats and dogs and everyone gets annoyed at them. You probably just filed this idiom under “things some people just say for some reason” and never paid it any additional thought. But what if we went through the filing cabinet? Why do we say it’s raining cats and dogs?

Raining Animals

Here’s a fun fact. It is possible for animals to just… Rain out of the sky. Specifically, animals that are considered flightless–which makes even less sense when you think about it. Raining fish has been described even in the first century AD. The French saw toads rain from the sky in 1794. It’s a pretty well-documented phenomenon. Conventional wisdom holds that tornadoes formed over bodies of water just pick up a bunch of animals and deposit them somewhere else. This general framework is supported by how often the animals that fall from the sky are fish or frogs–small and aquatic animals. It’s not a catchall, since it doesn’t explain why animal rainfall comes from only one species, and doesn’t explain why other objects falling from the sky with animals aren’t reported. Though we suppose the latter can be explained away by “nobody cares if some loose clothes fall from the sky when Jim got hit in the face by a trout.” 

Birds raining from the sky is both more common and more easily explainable. Migrating birds caught in storms may be killed and subsequently fall from the sky. These mass bird deaths aren’t too uncommon, and may go unreported. Funnily enough, birds have also been possible reasons for other animals falling from the sky. A rain of fish in Texas was hypothesized to have been due to a bunch of birds just… Dropping them from the sky. 

None of that is cats and dogs

Turns out, the etymology of “raining cats and dogs” actually doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the raining of other animals. The first recorded use of the phrase appears in a collection of poems called Olor Iscanus, which was penned around 1651. 

The raining of cats and dogs is also described in Jonathan Swift’s “Description of a City Shower” (1710).

“Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,

Dead cats and turnip-tops come tumbling down the flood.”

Swift’s poem offers one of the most conventional hypotheses for the raining of cats and dogs. Specifically, Swift was likely referencing 1700s drainage systems in Europe, which were… Decidedly bad. They were sometimes just barf up whatever was in them when it rained a lot, including the dead bodies of assorted animals. Morbid. 

Other unsubstantiated claims hold that the phrase may come from the Greek Katadoupoi, which refers to waterfalls on the Nile. It may have made its way through to the old French catadupe, which still meant waterfall, before making its way into medieval English. Some point to Norse mythology, wherein some stories hold cats have influence over the weather (specifically rain), and dogs signal winds. 

It’s also just… Totally possible that the old English just came up with the phrase because they thought it was funny. No really, they have a track record for saying weird stuff for no apparent reason, like “it’s raining pitchforks.” Raining cats and dogs may be derived from a more complete form of the idiom: that it’s “raining cats and dogs and pitchforks.” This may have been reference to dogbolts and catbolts, which would have been used to lock the doors of barns where pitchforks were kept. 

Speaking of rain, see if you know your rain cinema here.

About the Author:

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Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.