New England Journal of Medicine Peddles Kitty Woo

26 07 2007

In the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, out today, there is a new “Perspective Article” entitled “A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat.” It is clearly a puff piece, describing how a resident cat named Oscar at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island curls up to patients that only have a few hours to live. The tone of the article is a bit more mystic however, suggesting that Oscar sniffs the air in order to figure out when someone’s “time” is, acting like a feline Grim Reaper (although to the best of my understanding Death does not purr and nuzzle those about to die, despite his well-known fondness of cats).

Still, the fact remains that this particular cat has attended 25 people who died shortly after Oscar curled up to them, and the cat generally ignores other people. This has led Yahoo! to put the story “Oscar the cat predicts patients’ deaths” on the front page, referring to the NEJM article as if it were some kind of new paper or research. The only real rationality in the Yahoo! story is found in this quote;

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioral clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa’s article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it’s also possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.

Still, I’m sure plenty of people will latch on to the story as proof of psychic connections with animals, ESP, and other woo despite the fact that an observation has been made but no actual research has been done. I’m not even sure if there have been any studies about how animals react towards the sick or dying, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that pets can pick up on signs that we may miss (my parents’ dog knew my mother was pregnant with me before she did, at least that’s how the story goes). Hopefully someone will have a look at this case and determine what is actually going on, but I have the feeling that even if such a study was undertaken many people would ignore it in preference of ideas about special connections with animals.

Update the 1st: Aydin brings up something I didn’t think about at first; maybe Oscar’s actions are a variation on those of Clever Hans the horse. For more, visit Snails Tales.

Likewise, Julia pointed me to a BBC article where it states that Oscar becomes quite upset if he’s removed from the room. This is likely an important clue, and (as morbid as it sounds) maybe there is some sort of chemical/pheromone/scent or something else about the dying that attracts this cat. It would explain the behavior of selecting and being affectionate with those who are about to pass away. Hopefully someone will look into this, and I’d love to see if a reason could be found for Oscar’s behavior.

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11 responses

26 07 2007
Oldfart

If dogs can smell cancer and other diseases, why can’t cats smell death? But, as you say, it’s something that needs testing.

26 07 2007
Julia

The report of this on the BBC News said a doctor at the home believed the cat was detecting a biochemical signal. This seems perfectly plausible – after all, dogs have been trained to detect bladder cancer, although I don’t know how sensitive cats are to scent, compared to dogs.

Provided the cat is observed to not spend any time with patients for whom death is not imminent (let’s see some statistics to back this up), then a biochemical trigger seems an obvious scientific explanation. I tend not to read much about them, but the studies of the physiology of dying mention all sorts of chemicals being released (the most controversial being those that the workers conclude cause hallucinations of tunnels, bright lights, family members etc). This cat has clearly just picked up on this.

A more interesting question would be “Why is the cat choosing, on the basis of this biochemical signal, to sit with the dying patients?”. If it shows no interest in the people at any other time then it surely isn’t any kind of master-pet devotion.

And of course we’re ignoring the flip side of the causal relationship… ;-)

26 07 2007
laelaps

The problem is that I’m not sure that dogs can actually smell cancer; there might be some other physiological change they’re picking up on so that they know someone is sick (being that I don’t think a dog can understand what cancer is). Animals have different senses than us, so I think they’re picking up on certain physiological cues (probably mostly dealing with smell) that we don’t pick up on since we’re primarily visual and auditory animals. I don’t think Oscar “smells” death at all, but is reacting to something else the is a cue that the person is about to die. I just am wondering why the NEJM would publish a more fanciful article when no one’s done any real work on the subject, at least as far as I know.

26 07 2007
laelaps

Thanks for the link Julia. I agree that it’s probably some smell or other signal the cat is picking up on (it’s easy to forget that animals have different senses, or arrangements of senses, than we do sometimes). The cat’s motivation may be harder to pin down, and while I’m sure it could be that Oscar wants to comfort someone who is sick (many pet owners can attest to this) once we determine what the biochemical signal is there may be some clue. Maybe cats are, in fact, attracted to the biochemical signals that precede death, thus the cat is more affectionate because of their reaction to the signals. As I’ve suggested, I hope someone follows up on this as it could prove to be very interesting, but despite my scientific questions I’m glad that the people in that hospital do have a comfort in Oscar, regardless of why.

26 07 2007
laelaps

And I should probably look at the BBC News more often; I usually prefer it to what I run into here. The only news that I usually listen to is NPR when I can have the radio on at work (which carries the BBC for a bit in the morning), most of what I run into on the internet being relatively useless trash.

26 07 2007
Aydin

Here is my take on this.

26 07 2007
Oldfart

Cats are extremely weird animals with a variety of personality traits and weird fetishes. I once had a cat who drank soapy water. The same cat would attack any kid who wasn’t a family member and would sit and stare at adults waiting for them to make a fast move. I used to get a kick out of watching cat-lovers who visited our home. Another cat would go to my son’s bed when my son told him to get in bed. Another cat would fetch a rolled up empty cigarette pack and bring it back for you to throw again. Yet another cat would hunt cockroaches and other bugs. My sister could dress a cat up and make it stay in a stroller while she pushed it around – outside.

Any cat owner knows that cats see things people don’t see. There’s nothing like a quiet evening at home in front of the fireplace – until your cat hisses at a dark corner and backs away from …………….. nothing.

A cat’s ability to detect “something” related to people dying would not surprise me at all.

28 07 2007
lunaqua

The fact that this sort of documentation, albeit a very brief mention, shows up in a medical journal is proof in and of itself that this subject matter is being given far more respect than it ever has been.
So many more people are willing to admit to having witnessed these phenomena, and are now providing legitimate documentation. This is not the sort of thing that can be made to occur in a laboratory setting, (as of yet), although we are getting close to having visual and other tangible proof.
Getting a group of highly respected and trusted people with a well-grounded scientific background to document this sort of phenomenon is quite difficult,and I for one am quite gratified to read something of this nature, and fully expect it to be subjected to ridicule, no matter how many reliable and sensible people are relating it to the general public.
I am referring not to an animal sensing biochemical changes, but to a cat sensing the presence of alternate realities and/ or other worldly beings.
AS many of your posters have made note of, cats may well be in possession of abilities that not many of we humans command in this regard.
I would like to add my own documentation of my own compelling experience, of which I have photographic proof, which consists of one of my cats who seemed to be able to witness the passing of the spirit of another of our cats. The photographic proof of her abilities came from when I had captured her on one occasion with her eyes focused exactly
on one of the so-called orbs of light that digital cameras can pick up.
She, Aqua, has often been seen to follow something across the room with her eyes, and in the instance there was no doubt of what she was looking at. In the series of photos, shot at intervals, she was following this glowing orb, which some have referred to as “dust” – but which I seriously now doubt as an explanation for these orbs, since even a cat wouldnt be able to follow a speck of dust across the room at such an angle as this was traveling.
As for the evening of our cat Sapphire’s passing, Aqua was by Sapphire’s side for the hour before, and for rest of the night after, moved off a bit and looking up into a corner of the room where Sapphire died. Animals have no reason to try and make you think they are seeing things – unlike some humans who stoop to trickery for whatever reason.
She has never done this before or since, and believe you me, this was a very profound sight, to see Aqua looking up into a corner of the room where there was nothing. It doesnt take too much reasoning power to make the assumption that she may be observing some manifestation of the spirit of Sapphire waiting a while before she departed on her ultimate journey to the heavens.
ALL NIGHT, Aqua stayed in this exact same spot, and while I watched, she was looking up at this spot. When I awoke in the morning she was still there, asleep. Sapphire was buried in the garden the next day, and Aqua never slept in that spot again.

28 07 2007
laelaps

Thank you for your comment “lunaaqua,” but as Carl Sagan so often said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and I am not convinced by the supernatural hypotheses about Oscar or about your anecdotal evidence. You can send any description/picture you like if you desire to, I will be happy to review it (my contact information is at the top right of the blog), but I would be lying if I said I was highly skeptical of your story.

As for cats sensing things people don’t sense, I think that’s very true (but only to an extent). Cats have different physiologies, have a different perspective, and their senses have different strengths or abilities than ours. Indeed, my cats often go after bugs or other things that I can’t see, even though they know they’re there. On top of that, cats just act weird at times; for a few months my cat Chase would become scared and hyperactive for no reason, running around the apartment for a few minutes. This eventually stopped, and I have no reason to believe it was caused by any sort of 6th sense. Even speaking for myself, as a child I was scared of one particular hallway in my house and convinced myself it might be “haunted.” Years later, I lived down that hallway and never had the same experiences; as a child I had convinced myself that the dark, ominious hallway must have harbored something bad, and so I made myself scared when there was nothing to fear.

As for digital cameras, they often pick up dust, reflections, insects, and other things that we’re not normally paying attention to at the time. I was once presented with a picture of a “haunted” cavern filled with glowing orbs; the “orbs” were merely dust motes reflecting the flash of the camera.

Furthermore, you state;

“She has never done this before or since, and believe you me, this was a very profound sight, to see Aqua looking up into a corner of the room where there was nothing. It doesnt take too much reasoning power to make the assumption that she may be observing some manifestation of the spirit of Sapphire waiting a while before she departed on her ultimate journey to the heavens.”

What you’re saying here rests on a few assumptions that you seem to be predisposed to. Here are the assumptions inherent in the argument;

1) Cats have souls or some sort of life force that can live outside the body and is not generated by the brain or other organs, existing in space.

2) Cats can detect when that soul leaves the body.

3) There is a cat heaven (or even hell) or some other place for that ambiguously manifested energy to go after death.

4) The transfer is not instantaneous

5) Digital cameras can pick up this phenomena when the spirit is outside the body, but not when the spirit is in the body.

There are probably others, but what you have proposed requires a burden of evidence to even possibly be true, and a far more simply answer for what you describe is a cat traumatized by the death of a companion (we know cats do grieve) and experiencing very real psychological trauma. Another example known from people is when someone experiences a traumatic event and are touched on a certain part of their body, that part having chronic problems or paralysis. Indeed, the trauma of the event causes a psycho-somatic reaction, doctors failing to find any physical reason for the problem. Some people get treatment and overcome the problem, but others go to faith healers and believe they’ve experienced a miracle when in reality it was all in their heads. Thus, what seems like something supernatural has a perfectly normal explanation from observations.

In any case, I appreciate the time you put in bringing your story here, but I simply do not find any compelling evidence that you witnessed something supernatural. I know you will likely disagree with me (and that is your right), but in order for your case to even be slightly credible you’d have to prove at least some of the major underlying assumptions about souls and the afterlife.

31 07 2007
lunaqua

Thank you for your comment “lunaaqua,” but as Carl Sagan so often said “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and I am not convinced by the supernatural hypotheses about Oscar or about your anecdotal evidence.
THIS DOES NOT SURPRISE ME IN THE LEAST, AS I WAS EXACTLY THE SAME BEFORE I HAD MY OWN PERSONAL EVIDENCE, WHICH HAPPENED UPON THE DEATH OF MY FATHER.
I WAS A SELF-DESCRIBED ATHEIST, AND I THINK MOST PROPLE WHO ARE SCIENTIFIC MINDED MUST HAVE THEIR OWN IRREFUTABLE PROOF BEFORE ACCEPTING ANYTHING OF THIS KIND.
FUNNY YOU SHOULD MENTION CARL, AS I HAD A QUITE DELIGHTFUL VISIT FROM HIM IN THE AFTERLIFE, CLOSE TO A TIME WHEN I HAD ALMOST MADE IT THERE MYSELF, ALONG WITH A FRIEND WHO DID MAKE IT THERE AT THAT TIME, AT THE TIME OF HIS DEATH IN DECEMBER 1996. THEY WERE DANCING TOGETHER:)
HAVE YOU EVER SEEN HIS MOVIE – “CONTACT”? I’M SURE YOU HAVE! I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING MORE POSITIVELY COMPELLING TOWARDS THE POSSIBILITY OF AN AFTERLIFE OR EXISTENCES OTHER THAN THIS ONE. You can send any description/picture you like if you desire to, I will be happy to review it (my contact information is at the top right of the blog),

I DONT SEE THAT LINK HOWEVER – I WOULD BE GLAD TO SEND THAT PICTURE I REFERRED TO
but I would be lying if I said I was highly skeptical of your story.
IS THIS A PSYCHOLOGICAL FOPA?

As for cats sensing things people don’t sense, I think that’s very true (but only to an extent). Cats have different physiologies, have a different perspective, and their senses have different strengths or abilities than ours. Indeed, my cats often go after bugs or other things that I can’t see, even though they know they’re there. On top of that, cats just act weird at times; for a few months my cat Chase would become scared and hyperactive for no reason, running around the apartment for a few minutes. This eventually stopped, and I have no reason to believe it was caused by any sort of 6th sense. Even speaking for myself, as a child I was scared of one particular hallway in my house and convinced myself it might be “haunted.” Years later, I lived down that hallway and never had the same experiences; as a child I had convinced myself that the dark, ominious hallway must have harbored something bad, and so I made myself scared when there was nothing to fear.

IT SOUNDS AS IF YOU ARE TRYING TO CONVINCE YOURSELF THAT YOU HAVE NOT WITNESSED OR EXPERIENCED ANYTHING OF A HEIGHTENED SENSORY NATURE. IT MAY NOT BE AS MUCH SUPERNATURAL AS NATURAL ABILITY IN A CAT, OR IN A CHILD TO BE ABLE TO SENSE OTHER WORDLY OT OTHER DIMENSIONAL PRESENCES. PLEASE DON’T BE CLOSE-MINDED – THAT IS NOT LOGICAL THINKING.

As for digital cameras, they often pick up dust, reflections, insects, and other things that we’re not normally paying attention to at the time. I was once presented with a picture of a “haunted” cavern filled with glowing orbs; the “orbs” were merely dust motes reflecting the flash of the camera.
MY EYES CAN PICK UP DUST, REFLECTIONS, INSECTS AND QUITE A FEW OTHER THINGS, TOO. I’VE SEEN HOW DUST FLOATS IN THE SUNLIGHT – AND INSECTS DO NOT ESCAPE MY ATTENTION AFTER A FEW MOMENTS OF FLYING ABOUT. i WEAR GLASSES, AND AM QUITE USED TO THE REFLECTIVE QUALITIES OF LIGHT CAUSED BY THE PLAY OF LIGHT ON LENSES.
WHY AREN’T THESE THINGS SEEN MORE OFTEN, ALL THE TIME?
DUST IS ALWAYS FLYING ABOUT – REFLECTIONS ALWAYS AT PLAY.

Furthermore, you state;

“She has never done this before or since, and believe you me, this was a very profound sight, to see Aqua looking up into a corner of the room where there was nothing. It doesnt take too much reasoning power to make the assumption that she may be observing some manifestation of the spirit of Sapphire waiting a while before she departed on her ultimate journey to the heavens.”

What you’re saying here rests on a few assumptions that you seem to be predisposed to. Here are the assumptions inherent in the argument;

1) Cats have souls or some sort of life force that can live outside the body and is not generated by the brain or other organs, existing in space.
I ASSUME THAT ALL LIVING ENTITIES, EVEN THE EARTH ITSELF HAS A LIFE FORCE – GASP!! NOT EXACTLY A NEW ASSUMPTION, BUT ONE THAT HAS BEEN PUT FORTH SINCE HUMANITY HAS DEVELOPED THE CAPABILITY TO GENERATE “THOUGHTS” – AND WE STILL DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHAT THOSE ARE, WE ARE STILL STUDYING SO MANY DIFFERENT PHYSIOLOGICAL PROCESSES, WE ARE IN OUR INFANCY IN THESE SORTS OF STUDIES. WE ARE MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ON ALL OF THESE FRONTS.

2) Cats can detect when that soul leaves the body.

3) There is a cat heaven (or even hell) or some other place for that ambiguously manifested energy to go after death.
HEAVEN IS JUST A WORD, AS YOU HAVE DEDUCED, AND OUR SPIRIT IS JUST ENERGY – AS MATTER CANNOT BE CREATED OR DESTROYED. I’M SURE AS WE LEARN MORE, THESE PHENOMENON WILL FOLLOW LAWS OF PHYSICS OR SOME OTHER ORDER OF SCIENTIFIC LAWS OF WHICH WE ARE NOT YET AWARE.

4) The transfer is not instantaneous. WELL, IT MIGHT OR MIGHT NOT BE -BUT SOME HAVE PROVIDED EVIDENCE (IN HUMANS) THAT THE SOUL OR SPIRIT DOES HAVE A CERTAIN WEIGHT, AND THAT IT (THIS SPRITUAL BODY) DOES DEPART THE MATERIAL REMAINS AT A CERTAIN GIVEN TIME AFTER BIOLOGICAL FUNCTIONING HAS CEASED.

5) Digital cameras can pick up this phenomena when the spirit is outside the body, but not when the spirit is in the body.
WELL, OF COURSE, THE SPIRITUAL BODY WOULD BE OBSCURED BY THE PHYSICAL BODY, AT LEAST SOMEWHAT, BUT IT HAS BEEN KNOWN TO HAVE BEEN SEEN PHOTOGRAPHICALLY OR BY OTHER TECHNICAL MEANS, IN BOTH HUMAN, ANIMAL AND PLANT BODIES.

There are probably others, but what you have proposed requires a burden of evidence to even possibly be true, and a far more simply answer for what you describe is a cat traumatized by the death of a companion (we know cats do grieve) and experiencing very real psychological trauma.

AQUA WAS NOT EXHIBITING SYMPTOMS OF BEING TRAUMATIZED, AND SAPPHIRE WAS NOT A LONGTIME COMPANION, HAVING ONLY BEEN FAIRLY RECENTLY ADOPTED. WHAT AQUA WAS PRESENTING WITH WAS EVIDENCE OF BEING CURIOUS, AND THIS WAS THE FIRST TIME SHE KEPT HER GAZE STEADY AND LOCKED IN PLACE,UPWARDS AND IN THE CORNER – AFTER SAPPHIRE DIES – INSTEAD OF FOLLOWING A MOVEMENT, AS I HAD KNOWN HER TO HAVE DONE BEFORE, AS IN THE PHOTOS OF HER FOLLOWING AN ORB.

THE ONLY ONE BEING TRAUMATIZED IN THE LEAST WAS MYSELF AS A WITNESS TO SOMETHING THAT WAS BEGINNING TO BE AN UNNERVING EXPERIENCE, NOT IN THE LEAST EXPECTED.
ALTHOUGH, AS I MENTIONED, I HADN’T HAD THE SAPPHIRE LONG, I WAS STILL ATTACHED TO HER, AND WAS SAD TO SEE HER PASSING. I HAD ADPPTED HER ALONG WITH A KITTEN,LYNX, BUT SAPPHIRE WAS A SICKLY, AND PROBABLY OLD CAT FROM THE BEGINNING. MY OTHER CAT, LUNA, DIDN’T REALLY PAY ANY ATTENTION TO WHAT WAS GOING ON, THOUGH SHE IS USUALLY VERY CURIOUS ABOUT ANYTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY.

Another example known from people is when someone experiences a traumatic event and are touched on a certain part of their body, that part having chronic problems or paralysis. Indeed, the trauma of the event causes a psycho-somatic reaction, doctors failing to find any physical reason for the problem. Some people get treatment and overcome the problem, but others go to faith healers and believe they’ve experienced a miracle when in reality it was all in their heads. Thus, what seems like something supernatural has a perfectly normal explanation from observations.

HOW DOES THIS FIT IN WITH THE OSCAR STORY? YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN THE GIST OF THE STORY THAT WE ARE DISCUSSING IN THE FIRST PLACE.
MY “ANECDOTE” IS IN REGARDS TO THAT, AND I HOPED TO GIVE MORE EVIDENCE OF THE CATS ABILITIES TO SENSE THE PRESENCE OF A DEPARTING SPIRIT OR PERHAPS A MINISTERING OR ACCOMPANYING ANGELIC TYPE PRESENCE.
PERHAPS MY RHETORIC IN DESCRIBING THESE PRECESSES IS WHAT OFFENDS THE SCIENTIFIC MINDED, BUT I AM MEARLY USING WHAT IS AT HAND IN OUR LIMITED LEXICON OF LANGUAGE. PERHAPS AS WE LEARN MORE ON A SCIENTIFIC LEVEL, THAT LEXICON WILL EXPAND TO TAKE INTO ACCOUNT THESE OTHER DIMENSIONAL EXPERIENCES AND ENTITIES.

In any case, I appreciate the time you put in bringing your story here, but I simply do not find any compelling evidence that you witnessed something supernatural. I know you will likely disagree with me (and that is your right), but in order for your case to even be slightly credible you’d have to prove at least some of the major underlying assumptions about souls and the afterlife.
THAT IS LIKE DEMANDING THAT YOU PROVE TO ME WHERE ALL LIFE HAS ORIGINATED FROM BEFORE I TAKE YOU SERIOUSLY – WE HAVE GOTTEN IT BACK TO THE LAST HALF SECOND, BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT LAST .025 OF THE BEGINNING OF LIFE – WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT CRITICAL TIME AND MOST INTERESTINGLY -******* BEFORE*****
PLEASE DON’T PRETEND THAT SCIENCE HAS ALL THE ANSWERS YET – IT DOESN’T, THERE ARE STILL MANY PECULIAR THINGS OUT THERE THAT ARE AS YET UNANSWERED – THANK HEAVENS(OR WHATEVER) FOR WE LOVE A MYSTERY – DON’T WE?:)

11 11 2009
yaon

On October, 21-24st the corporation «DENAS МS» has taken part in the annual international congress EuroSpine-2009 devoted to problems of treatment of diseases of a backbone. On action which passed in Warsaw, A.A.Vlasov, the deputy director of medicine of Corporation, has acted with the report. Preparation for participation to the congress has begun several months ago: the Application blank and the report “Randomized placebo controllable research of efficiency DENS therapy at patients with osteoporosis crisis of vertebras” have been sent to congress organising committee. In some months the medical centre of corporation has received the invitation to the Action. Formation of the list of reports of the congress was preceded by strict and careful selection: one third has been chosen from the sent works. Representation DENS was included into number of the reports which are worthy. The leading manufacturers of medical technics and known medical institutions of Poland, Great Britain, USA, France, Italy, Greece and other countries have presented their methods of treatment and rehabilitation of patients with diseases and backbone traumas. (It is important also that on EuroSpine-2009 the Corporation DENAS MS was only one Russian company, whose report has been included in the action program). The overwhelming majority of works (about 95 %) has been devoted to the surgical treatment. Other reports concerned ways of rehabilitation by means of physical culture, medicines and others. And only one participant of the congress – corporation «DENAS МS», – has shown possibilities of treatment of spinal patients by means of physiotherapy.

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