Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Oscar the cat provides comfort to the dying.

ResearchBlogging.org

According to an article that was just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a two-year-old cat that lives in Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, can correctly predict impending death among the residents. Oscar the cat has a habit of curling up next to patients who are in their final hours, and so far, he has been observed to be correct in 25 cases.

“He doesn’t make many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die,” observed David Dosa, a professor at Brown University who carried out the research.

Since Oscar was adopted by staff members as a kitten, he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die. Normally unfriendly towards people, Oscar’s mere presence at a patient’s bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to notify families before their loved one dies. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves.

What do you think enables this cat to predict impending death among the residents of this nursing home with reasonable accuracy? Some people like to think that cats and other animals can be psychic, but I personally think that’s a bunch woo. However, I know that many mammals (and even a few bird species) have a very acute sense of smell, and are probably relying on smell to detect small biochemical changes in sweat or the patient’s breath, for example, that enables them predict health events in humans such as impending death (or seizures, or to detect malignant cancers, as others have asserted).

Certainly, animals and birds are known to have demonstrated the ability to sense an impending eathquake, tsunami or tornado, probably because they can hear or otherwise detect the associated vibrations in the earth that precede these events, so it makes sense that they can also smell biochemical changes that are associated with illnesses such as malignant cancers or that precede events such as seizures or death.

Sources

Original article: A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat by David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H. New England Journal of Medicine 357(4):328-329 (July 26, 2007) [PDF]. (story, image)

BBCNews (quote).

Comments

  1. #1 biosparite
    July 27, 2007

    A TV program about cats I watched in December 1999 reported on another cat at a nursing home that manifested the same behavior. And a friend of mine whose dog had to be euthanized last winter found that the night before the procedure was scheduled, all three of her cats curled up and slept on top of the dog (a Doberman). I suspect scent has a lot to do with this.

  2. #2 Library Diva
    July 27, 2007

    I’ve been saying all year that I ought to send my cat Molly to nursing school. Early in the year, I got a wicked 24-hour virus: hot flashes/cold chills, sore joints, sore throat, congestion, nausea, fever, I was a walking Theraflu commercial. I called in to work, of course. Molly never left my side the entire day. I spent most of the day sleeping and she slept right next to me, which she doesn’t normally do. She’s done this every time I was sick since I’ve gotten her.

    She’s also good at detecting emotional upset. I’ve had a rough couple of weeks, with the ghost of a past relationship coming back to haunt not only my dreams but my every waking moment, and things going poorly in my current relationship anyway. She has been spending a lot more time with me, and in fact is nearby me right now. Normally, she’s a pretty independent-minded cat.

    I, too, suspect it’s something about scent or perhaps other non-verbal cues, although I’m certainly no scientist. But I wasn’t really surprised to hear about the feline cat omen. I actually suspect Molly could do it too, if she was regularly exposed to the sick and dying the way Oscar is.

    Incidentally, I think nursing-home pet programs are fantastic. My great-grandfather was in a nursing home that had several pets for the last few years of his life. They cheered everyone up and probably gave a good home to otherwise unwanted animals.

  3. #3 HP
    July 27, 2007

    My hypothesis: Even though they’ve pushed back the date for cat domestication recently, cats are still the least “domesticated” (closest to the wild state) of all domestic animals.

    Cats in the wild are predators and obligate carnivores. More than that, they avoid scavenging unless desperate, and will walk away from potential prey that is already dead. However, cats tend to favor prey that is sick or weak. To a hunting cat, the difference between a sick prey animal and dead prey animal is the difference between supper and an empty stomach.

    Which is a way of saying that cats have finely honed instincts for detecting illness or weakness and death, and making fine distinctions between the two. Scent might be a part of it; I suspect that Oscar curls up close to terminal patients to monitor their breathing and heart rate as well. Domestic cats have been observed using their whiskers and the sensitive nerves in their teeth to identify the moment of death in prey animals like rodents. If Oscar has been observed “sniffing” patients, I bet he’s really using his whiskers as motion sensors.

    However, cats are not instinctual killers. Most cats learn to kill from their mother or an older female cat. A cat like Oscar has inherited all the neural, physiological, and instinctual mechanisms for identifying imminent death, but he hasn’t associated them with killing and eating. On the other hand, he’s in an environment where identifying imminent death is valued. I’m sure he’s rewarded with treats and praise and grooming (although from that picture above, he needs a good brushing). My purely emotional observation as a cat owner is that they spend as much time trying to “felinomorphize” us we spend anthropomorphizing them. Oscar has simply found a way to use his instinctual skills to create a secure position in his social group.

    It’s mysterious only in the sense that we don’t understand all the mechanisms by which cats identify death, but we do know that outdoor, feral, and wild cats use this skill in order to hunt and eat.

    NB: IANAZoologist, so I may just be blowing smoke. But a cursory observation of cat hunting techniques shows that cats can identify the difference between dying and dead in prey animals with a great deal of precision.

  4. #4 Max Kaehn
    July 27, 2007

    My cats are Maine Coons: big fluffy beasts who have such thick coats that they lack the normal feline tropism for piles of warm laundry. My wife and I let the thermostat drop to 55°F at night in the winter just so they’ll come sleep on our ankles. Yet even when it’s warm, they’ll curl up on my wife when she’s ill, adding that >100°F kitty body temperature to help pump up her fever. I don’t think there’s anything mysterious to it; I expect they can smell the change in our sweat and are just exhibiting an adaptive behavior that normally works to promote kin selection.

  5. #5 Ktesibios
    July 27, 2007

    I had a number of experiences like Library Diva’s with a cat who owned me from 1982 to 1997.

    Normally, Blob stayed off my bed; it was a waterbed and he seemed very leery of the squishy footing. He would sometimes walk around the rim of the wooden frame, occasionally putting out a paw to test the surface, and look at me as if to say “Nuh-uh- ain’t walking on that”.

    In spite of this, when I happened to be sick and lying in bed curled into a ball of misery, Blob would jump up on the bed, walk right over to me and snuggle up against me, purring like crazy while he kneaded my aching back. I don’t know what the basis of this behavior was, but from my point of view it was undeniably comforting.

  6. #6 Science Avenger
    July 27, 2007

    I remain skeptical of this alleged ability. In particular, I would like to know what constitutes a hit or a miss. After all, it is a nursing home, so the mortality is going to be pretty high. Even if the cat laid with people at random, it would seem to score some predictions.

    If the predictions are a matter of the people dying mere hours after the cat lays with them, I’d be convinced. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have an ability to sense impending death as others have described it. I’d just like to make sure we’ve eliminated the perception bias.

  7. #7 Gerry L
    July 28, 2007

    Science Avenger,
    I saw an interview with someone who worked at the facility and she said the cat did not spend much time with residents but he would suddenly get up and go to a patient’s room and settle in. Death would occur in a matter of hours. Said it had happened 25 times.

    I recall seeing the same program (on PBS?) that biosparite mentioned above. When I saw the Oscar story on the front page this week, I wondered why they were repeating such an old item. Then I saw that Oscar was only 2 years old. A PBS program on dogs has also showed that some dogs are able to detect (smell) cancer. A dog being tested insisted that one of the samples that was supposed to be negative was a hit. They did another biopsy on the person and discovered cancer.

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    July 28, 2007

    Orac thinks it’s confirmation bias. I’m minded to agree with him, at least until the full double-blind trial results are published.

    Bob

  9. #9 Science Avenger
    July 28, 2007

    Thanks Bob, “confirmation bias” is indeed what I meant. I was guilty of BWI.

  10. #10 Brandon
    July 28, 2007

    My mixed-breed cat always seemed to know who was most depressed or sick in the household and would curl up beside him. By solely anecdotal evidence, I’d have to agree with GrrlScientist that cats and dogs have some way of detecting subtle chemical changes in humans. In the future, if we find some way of replacing a man’s olfactory organs with a dog’s, we could have some of the best diplomats of all time.

  11. #11 MeToo
    July 29, 2007

    Yip.

    I also have a cat just like that.

    Sleeps on my head.

    Damn hard to get a big fat slob of a cat off your face when you’re asleep and half smothered.

    Somebody get that cat out of there before it kills somebody else!

  12. #12 katie
    July 30, 2007

    Confirmation bias. Is that just a fancy way of saying “blue car syndrome”? I think they probably just notice who the cat is sleeping with more when the person dies with it in their room. I can’t imagine that it never sleeps with anyone who doesn’t die.

  13. #13 janet
    July 30, 2007

    I read a discussion about Oscar the cat the other day, hosted by the doctor who wrote the NEJM article. Here’s a link to the discussion:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2007/07/27/DI2007072700984.html

    And here’s one comment that I thought was particularly interesting:

    Salt Lake City, Utah: The article said that Oscar has presided over the deaths of more than 25 people. Is that a small or large percentage of the people who have died during the time period that Oscar has been there? In other words, does he recognize most of the deaths that take place, or just a small percentage? (Still an amazing feat even if it’s just a small percent!)

    Dr. David M. Dosa: Oscar has been at each and every death that occurs in the facility in one capacity or another—there are a few occasions where family have not wanted him in the room. In those cases, he is never far away.

  14. #14 melanie
    October 22, 2007

    i rescued a tabby kitten while crabbing in a nearby lake. she set about as soon as i was asleep,she would crawl across my neck and sleep. just last week, i found out i may have thyroid cancer. so, yes, i believe in their strange abiity and that it must have to do with biochemistry changes.

  15. #15 Mel Smith
    January 15, 2010

    This is absolutely true. I work as a CNA in a nursing home and whenever a person is about to die, this cat who is usually skittish, Bandit, curls up on a chair next to his or her bed.