For centuries, humans across the world have agreed—cats need their freedom to roam.
The origin of the cat flap, which allows feline friends to come and go without endless scratching on doors, is not entirely clear. It is unlikely that they began in a single place at a single time, but even so, you might be curious: What’s the oldest door for cats that still stands today?
One contender is the Exeter Cathedral in Devon County, England, a church built over the course of several hundred years starting in the 12th century. Cathedral historian Diane Walker tells Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar that a cat door there dates back to 1598. Records from the Exeter Cathedral that year show a bishop named William Cotton paying carpenters to carve a cat hole in the door to a large astronomical clock.
According to Walker, the reason was because the clock’s gears would have been lubricated with animal fat, which attracted mice, and the cathedral’s cat served as pest control.
This clock has special cultural significance in England, in that some have suggested it to be the inspiration behind the nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock.” The cats that came through the flap in its door actually got paid for their work, according to bookkeeping records by the cathedral. The cats, or more likely their owners, received a food stipend for keeping rodent numbers down.
As Walker tells BBC News, even though the true genesis of the cat door is unknown, “it is nice to think ours is one of the earliest.”
It’s possible, however, that another English building has the cathedral beat.
BBC’s History Revealed magazine reported in 2014 that Chetham’s Library in Manchester boasts a centuries-old cat door; the library itself posted about the door on X, formerly known as Twitter, in 2013, calling it “medieval.” Chetham’s Library was first established in 1653 and eventually hosted Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels during the time they spent in England. The oldest public library in the country, It has operated continually since it was established.
The building that the library inhabits, however, dates back even further—to 1421, according to the library’s website. It housed a college of priests and is one of the most complete medieval buidings still standing in northwest England.
If the cat door was constructed back in the early years of the building, in the true “medieval” period which historians often say ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, then it might take the crown from Exeter Cathedral.
Cat doors would continue to pop up throughout history. A long-held rumor alleges that Sir Isaac Newton created doors for a cat and kitten in his rooms at the University of Cambridge, where he attended school and later worked. The story is told by mathematician John M. F. Wright in his 1827 memoir about his time at Cambridge, a century after the death of Newton. The myth has persisted, though even Wright admits that its accuracy is questionable.
There’s also the Madonna della Gattaiola, or the Virgin of the Cat Flap, at the Church of San Giorgio in Tuscany, Italy. This painting of the Virgin Mary from the 15th century, which was painted on either an organ door or an ornate table, depending on which version of the story you hear, was repurposed as a barn door by a parish priest who carved a hole for cats.
Fast forward to the information age, where nearly one million accounts on X follow the ins and outs of Pépito, a small black cat whose owner documents his travels with a motion camera rigged to his cat door. The account exclusively features snapshots taken by the camera as Pépito travels through the cat flap, letting his hundreds of thousands of followers know when he departs and when he arrives safely back home. Allison Tierney of VICE reported in 2016 that owner Clément Storck initially created Pépito’s account as part of a software automation he was building. He had no idea that strangers from around the world would take such a huge interest in the cat.
“I still don’t know why people are following him, but they give a lot of commentary. I read every comment he gets each morning when I wake up,” Storck told VICE.