Caturday felids: thanatology

March 12, 2011 • 6:01 am

It was only a matter of time before somebody decided to cash in on Oscar.  Oscar the death cat, whom Greg wrote about here, lives in a Rhode Island nursing home. His skill is a reported ability to sense when a resident is about to die.  As the shade looms, Oscar hies to the patient’s room and lies on the beds until death comes.

David Dosa, a doctor at the nursing home, wrote a touching but funny article about Oscar, “A day in the life of Oscar the cat,” which you can—and should—access free from the New England Journal of Medicine. It’s short but intriguing.

Here are some pictures of Oscar at work:

Dosa’s article describes how Oscar works:

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother, “What is the cat doing here?” The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

Oscar the cat becomes death

Now as skeptics we should be deeply suspicious.  How can a cat know when one sick person is not going to die, but another will?  And there alternative theories: my own was that Oscar was somehow actually killing the patients.  Don’t ask me how, for we mere hoomans can’t possibly comprehend the mind of a cat.

The point was that this was never tested scientifically, which would involve statistical analysis of those who lived and died, whether Oscar was present or not, whether there were “clever Hans” behaviors of the nursing-home staff, and so on.

But today I just want to report that Dosa has written a book about Oscar.  As reported by The Sun, it’s called Making the Rounds with Oscar: the Extraordinary Gifts of an Ordinary Cat (link is to the Amazon site).  Note how, in the book’s description, Oscar’s horrific behavior is turned into something warm and fuzzy—how comforting his presence is.  If Oscar walked into my room or my relative’s room, I’d be freaked out.

Here’s Dosa blurbing the book on Fox News:

There’s going to be a movie, of course; I suggest that Oscar be played by Maru, who bears a striking resemblance.

And, finally, a cartoon showing why all doctors should be cats:

30 thoughts on “Caturday felids: thanatology

  1. I hate how “Doctors” can behave sometimes. Seriously? Going through Medical School and you can’t be more skeptical?

    Unrelated: I hate how chiropractors call themselves “doctors”. LOL, like a Ps. D (Doctor of Pseudoscience!)

      1. I have a dentist named Beavers. Several people in the Beavers family are dentists.

        Later generations have become medical doctors. It just doesn’t have the same ring.

        1. Okay, I can’t resist posting this (perhaps I did once before): there is a gynecologist in northern Virginia named Dr. Harry Beaver (one of my friends had him as her doctor). The proof is here.

  2. In the show ‘House’ there was also a cat who was predicting the deaths of patients. House didn’t believe there was anything supernatural and eventually found out that the cat was lying on the people who were about to die because they had heating blankets.

  3. There are dogs (sorry!) that can sense impending seizures and smell malignant melanomas. Why couldn’t a cat sense impending death? As heart rate, body core temperature, and respiratory rate
    gradually slow and drop when death is imminent, a cat could easily pick up these cues.

    1. V.S. Ramachandran describes in his book Phantoms in the Brain about being taught to diagnose patients by smell: the “sweetish nail polish breath of diabetic ketosis, the freshly baked bread odor of typhoid fever, the stale-beer stench of scrofula, the newly-plucked chicken feathers aroma of rubella, the foul smell of a lung abscess, the ammonia-like Windex odor of a patient in liver failure… the grape juice smell of Pseudomonas infection in children, and the sweaty-feet smell of isovaleric acidemia”.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if certain causes of impending death also produced certain scents from the body…

      1. Smell does seem to be the most plausible mechanism, if this is indeed a real phenomenon. Someone should design a study. I am a cat lover and would LIKE for this to be true (it would add even more to their inherent awesomeness), but wishful thinking ain’t science….

  4. I agree with Jason and still learning, I prefer to believe (without evidence) that there is some kind of physical phenomenon behind Oscar. But, I also agree that that phenomenon may be heating blankets, or something equally pedestrian.

    It’s because I would find it wonderfully comforting to have my darlings (or any cat) curl up beside me when I’m dying. Mine curl up beside me all the time when I’m lying in bed, so it wouldn’t scare me, I wouldn’t necessarily think that I was near death.

    Anyway, I do hope they do that, even if it’s just because of the heating blanket.

  5. We had the same superstition with my mother in law. She was on hospice in a nursing unit and when the hospices nurse, who had an second generation American Irish accent, saw George, a cat who wandered around the unit and had been coming in for a year and sitting on my mother in law’s window sill, which has a nice view of the prey filled yard, was present, decided that her condition was serious. I will leave the evidence cherry picking process to the peer review committee.

    Since there can never be just two of anything, this is a probably a common belief in nursing units which have resident cats.

    It’s just human superstition, the obvious fact is that the cats are hoping for a deathbed conversion to Ceiling Cat.

    1. I do agree. I just prefer to cling to my superstition.

      Perhaps I will ascend to a heaven in which everyone else is a cat.

  6. The other day all three of my cats, plus my two dogs, laid on my bed. I think I am either going to really die or evolve into a Superbeing.

    Plus I have this big black monolith in my room, right next to my space pod.

  7. So, how often does the cat sit with people who arent dying? And really, in a place like this wouldn’t you expect the death rate to be high?

  8. My stepmother is now terminal, within a month or so of death and is in an acute care facility. While she was still at home, her cat, Chopstix, was unusually solicitous of her. Wouldn’t leave her, even to eat. Even I, not a cat fan, was impressed with her anxious sweetness.
    I therefore wonder whether this is common behavior in cats other than Oscar.

    1. I think I’ve said this before, but my cats acted strangely before I found out I was pregnant. I had the cats for many years and they seemed unusually drawn to me.
      I did not know about my pregnancy until I was about 9 weeks along. I think they did. Something different about my physiology changed their behaviour.

  9. Note how, in the book’s description, Oscar’s horrific behavior is turned into something warm and fuzzy—how comforting his presence is. If Oscar walked into my room or my relative’s room, I’d be freaked out.

    About time someone said this! +1 !

    Dosa’s just another wannabe-famous person, trying to capitalize on the Marley/Dewey crowd…

    The kind of sentiment they’re bending over backward to elicit here is exactly what one expects to see from woo-prone audiences.

  10. I can see how it might be ‘comforting’ in the context of a nursing home. Most patients about to die are suffering and death is a mercy. Moreover, it allows family time to get there beforehand.

    But the phenomenon itself doesn’t necessarily have to be spooky or paranormal. Might someone more qualified than me be able to say whether it’s possible that cats can smell some kind of hormone that’s given off as a person is dying?

  11. Two years ago my father (aged 100) was in the Alzheimer’s ward of a nursing home in Colorado with a resident cat who acted the same way as Oscar. Since I live in California, I had asked the nursing staff to call me immediately if their cat ever got on the bed with my Dad. The cat liked that room because of its warm sun, but never approached my father.

    A day before Dad died I arrived in town to visit him. The next morning the cat started acting strange. Down one corridor was my father, about to die. Down another corridor was another gentleman about to die. The nurses said that for much of the night the cat would go to the junction of the two corridors and stare down one and then the other as though it couldn’t decide which one to go down. Then it would visit one or the other. (It had never visited either one of them before this.) When I went into my father’s room the cat came and sat in my lap — it had always refused to do so on my many previous visits, but did so this time without my coaxing it. Two hours later the other gentleman died and 30 minutes later so did my father. The cat disappeared after that.

    I always assumed it could tell by odor. I asked the nurses if the cat was ever wrong. They said occasionally, but VERY rarely. Generally only if someone was close to death but barely managed to hold on (with the help of doctors and nurses of course).

  12. What “still learning” said in #6: it’s not that implausible for a carnivore to detect impending death. And what’s so creepy about it, in what’s essentially a hospice situation? It would be horrific a context where death was more a traumatic failure, such as (blanch) a juvenile cancer ward.

    I’m curious about the book, whether the doctor sticks with sensible observations (even if numbers are too small for good statistics) and non-magical effects, or if he encourages the crazy-thinking “helping grandma get to heaven” business.

  13. I know the oscar cat but i just dont know how the structure or mind of a cat works exactly??

    i read a newspaper in 2007 news was a japan company related one issue was there and along with that oscar cat is also there i have with me its poster but i just want to know how the mind of oscar cat works??

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