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.