Archive for Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cat senses when death near, stays with patients until end

July 26, 2007


— Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours.

Oscar, a hospice cat at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I., sits outside a patient's room. Oscar has predicted the deaths of 25 patients by curling up next to them during their final hours.

Oscar, a hospice cat at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I., sits outside a patient's room. Oscar has predicted the deaths of 25 patients by curling up next to them during their final hours.

His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

"He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," said Dr. David Dosa in an interview. He describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

"Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one," said Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.

The 2-year-old feline was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The facility treats people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.

After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He'd sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours.

Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally aloof. "This is not a cat that's friendly to people," he said.

Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill

She was convinced of Oscar's talent when he made his 13th correct call. While observing one patient, Teno said she noticed the woman wasn't eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.

Oscar wouldn't stay inside the room though, so Teno thought his streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor's prediction was roughly 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient's final two hours, nurses told Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.

Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don't know he's there, so patients aren't aware he's a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.

No one's certain whether Oscar's behavior is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Teno wonders whether the cat notices telltale scents or reads something into the behavior of the nurses who raised him.

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.

Nursing home staffers aren't concerned with explaining Oscar, so long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the dying.

Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care."


Frederic Gutknecht IV 10 years ago

They should change its name from Oscar to Grim.

esl03 10 years ago

What a great cat. I wish there were more out there like him.

Ragingbear 10 years ago

Hmm.. Can I borrow this cat for a week or two? There are some people I would like to introduce him to.

Ken Miller 10 years ago

Now you all know the origin of my screen name.

Katie Van Blaricum 10 years ago

I know this isn't a likely answer, but could it be possible that the cat actually causes the deaths?

jonas 10 years ago

I think the cat actually IS Death. There are multiple Death's, stationed here and there. This one is just a little lazy, so it set up shop in a nursing home, so it didn't ever have to go too far. Being lazy, it's natural astral projection is, of course, a cat.

acg 10 years ago

This is a pretty trippy story. If I were a resident there, I would get nervous as hell whenever the cat came around. I heard a story once about a dog that could sniff you and diagnose cancer growing in your body. Animals are far out.

Linda Endicott 10 years ago

You're not feeding into those silly old wive's tales, are you, aquakej?

I've lived around cats all my life, and believe me, they don't kill people, don't steal anyone's breath, yada, yada...

Cats do seem to have an uncanny sixth do dogs. I had a cat once that my mother said used to sit right by the door and wait for me to return from school every afternoon. She would start waiting at the same time every day. She didn't know how to tell time, of course, and didn't know what time I got out of school anyway, but somehow she was always waiting.

LittleMissFlea 10 years ago

I'm kinda glad that this has good documentation. When my grandmother was about to die, her cat that was normally incredibly noisy, whiny, and didn't like to cuddle much with her got really quiet and spent almost all of her time curled up on my grandmother's bed.

ramsrevenge 10 years ago

"Oscar....don't you dare jump up here. Oscar? Dam*it Oscar I told you not to jump up here, get down! Well at least let me finish watching the... "


Frederic Gutknecht IV 10 years ago

I had a big male cat that was fairly aloof unless I was sick. I thought it was kinda sweet when he'd jump into my lap and purr, until he started eating my fingers! Kidding about that last part...

jonas 10 years ago

Blue: Only when it starts singing.

O-Bob: I didn't think that anyone else had seen that movie! I had it randomly dubbed in front of Ghostbusters in this large collection of tapes we found at a rental property. Fun stuff, a Steven King collage. And my cat would watch it with me, curl up in a chair and actually watch the movie from across the room. I think she might have had a crush on the cat.

acg 10 years ago

That's one of the best little Stephen King stories ever. The movie was okay, but the story was much better. Wasn't that a short, in a collection of shorts that made up a whole movie? There was like 4 of them, or something. ??

kneejerkreaction 10 years ago

Does the Nursing Home cat have a bag around its neck marked "souls"? Don't trust cats.

kneejerkreaction 10 years ago

blue73harley...a first laugh of the day.

feeble 10 years ago

crazyks says:

. I had a cat once that my mother said used to sit right by the door and wait for me to return from school every afternoon. She would start waiting at the same time every day. She didn't know how to tell time, of course, and didn't know what time I got out of school anyway, but somehow she was always waiting.

Cats, like most animals, insects and fungi, actually can tell time. They do not rely on devices like a watch or timepiece, but on circadian rhythms, sun compasses and environmental cues. Most animals internal clock accurate to within 15 minutes of a time of a regularly occurring event.

salad 10 years ago

The death cat cometh....

I always find it amusing when people attribute some kind of intelligence to cats. A cat has a brain about the size of a cheerio and the corresponding intellect. Here's what's going through a cats head when humans think it's being aloof: "blank...blank....blank..." Dogs are smart, they can learn and be trained. Cat's have a tough time, not be cause they think they're superior, they just don't get it.

Frederic Gutknecht IV 10 years ago

I frequently wake up on weekdays, JUST before my alarm goes off. I am psychic, or a cat, and know that I'll then turn into a zombie for the whole of the working day! Scary.

Linda Endicott 10 years ago

Don't you just hate it when that happens, JJE007?

I do that all the time...wake up just before the alarm goes's annoying...:)

But it's really because, if you get up at the same time every morning, your body gets trained...

May Soo 10 years ago

If I have this angel of death cat in my room, I am sure will die the same momment rather than hours later.

jonas 10 years ago

O-Bob: All but the troll story are renditions of Steven King short stories: from Night Shift, if my memory serves me correctly.

beatrice 10 years ago

Perhaps other animals have this same capability, its just that people don't let water buffalos roam around the old folks home.

What a crazy and wonderful story. What they don't point out, however, is that the cat's weight goes up by 21 grams each and every time this happens. (If you don't know the signifigance of 21 grams, look into it.) Spooky.

Jonas, I think all stories have been written by Stephen King.

Linda Endicott 10 years ago

I've always wondered about the 21 grams thing, would they know? It's not like they're in the habit of weighing people just before they die...

Tychoman 10 years ago

I'm with Pywacket, Salad. Cats' brains are not the size of a cheerio. They're definitely bigger than that, and have you ever seen a cat outsmart a dog? Good times.

If I ever end up with a harbinger of death like Oscar, I'm keeping a squirt bottle nearby to keep him the frak away from me.

Ragingbear 10 years ago

The big issue about training cats is that they have a definite attitude about humans. They see themselves as equals or even superior to humans. Dogs on the other hand tend to live to please humans. But once you get past the cat's attitude, they are typically easier to train than dogs. You just need to know how to train them, as they require significant changes in the approach of the trainer.

I have trained my cat to do a number of things. This includes us having "conversations" where we are able to communicate with a series of key sounds. Usually it is me asking her what she wants, and then me confirming the requests, then stating approval or denial. Some people think it's nuts, but cat's will make an effort to communicate with you. You just got to be attentive.

Tristan Moody 10 years ago

As someone whose cats are trained to come, sit, lie down, sit up, shake, leave a room, go into the bedroom, get up in the bed, get on their specific pillow, and eat from their own dish, I can definitely attest to the trainability of cats.

salad 10 years ago

sorry pywacket et al, but your the ones full of anthropromorphic ish. You just have to realize that you are, in fact, incorrect. Cats just aren't smart, doesn't mean we don't love em, they're just dumb. They don't even realize they're the harbingers of death in nursing home. If any of you could actually READ, I said "Cats have a tough time" which doesn't mean they can't be trained, just that they have puny cheerio-sized brains. If your cat can out smart your dog, your dog is retarded too.

happyhovel 10 years ago

When I was laid up in bed with a crushed ankle after a car accident, my black kitty, Kitty Carlisle, never left my side unless she had to eat or tinkle or poop. She knew I was hurting badly and I swear she could sense it. We have a psychic connection, I have no doubt about it.

Tychoman 10 years ago

Salad, it's simply not true that a cat's brain is the size of a cheerio.

LittleMissFlea 10 years ago

Cheerio sized?

Average length, 5cm, average weight 30 grams. Last time I checked, cheerios we a lot smaller than that.

feeble 10 years ago

Pywacket's last post was fairly right on.

Dogs, especially herding/work dogs, have superior "working" memories, when compared to cats. That is, these dogs can keep track of more objects in real time, which for an animal that used to prey on large packs of herd animals, is important.

House cats, and their ancestors, don't hunt like that, being more opportunity hunters, and never really developed that mental capacity, but cats tend to have better long term memories, which are useful for predators. For example, you need to know where you've successfully hunted in the past, and where resources (shelter /water) can be found reliably, since as a solitary predator, you must range over a fairly wide area. Pack animals/scavengers/predators tend to just follow their prey.

I imagine these kinds of differences are what spawned the cliche about comparing to objects that are not similar or readily comparable.

beatrice 10 years ago

I heard Oscar just registered as a Republican. Yippeee!!!

(Okay, sorry to be a jerk, but I thought of it and couldn't let it pass. In the future, I will try to save my political comments for the political columns. Sorry.)

gr 10 years ago

Death by cat.

Hope the global alarmists don't get a hold of that cat. If they use their same logic, they would see the cat is around when people die, THEREFORE it is a "consensus" the cat killed them. Then they will go on a rampage eliminating all cats to prevent them from killing off the whole population. For, 'why take the risk?', 'better safe than sorry', and 'if we wait, it'll be too late'. Of course, there will be "cat credits" you can purchase so your cat can kill someone and you can feel ok about it.....


"21 grams:"

The cat ate Grandma's soul.

Genesis 2:7: And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.

Maybe they measured a "dead" soul? Or God's breath?

cellogrl 10 years ago

LittleMissFlea, while your link is interesting, I'm not going to trust a word of it. It says that the average length of a human is 100 centimeters which is roughly equal to 39 inches. So unless everyone on earth has suddenly become about 3' 7", this is hugely flawed!!!

Dixie Jones 10 years ago

speaking of cats ,,,anyone want one or 5??? i have to females about 2 yrs old and 3 5 week old babies.. only to good homes tho. holler at me sometime..

Linda Endicott 10 years ago

Logic, I had a cat once who trained HIMSELF to use the toilet...I sure as hell never trained him to do it. I just walked in the bathrooom one day, and there he was, perched on the toilet...damn shame he never learned to flush, though...

Since he was a cat who was very friendly and always around your ankles, he would follow people into the bathroom. I supposed he learned how to use the toilet from watching others do it.

Linda Endicott 10 years ago

Oh, and the cat used the toilet from then on, without any urging at all by me...

jonas 10 years ago

Electric impulses, maybe? The cat can likely sense the slowing of vibration as the patient nears death. But that's just a guess.

Mandie Eutsler 10 years ago

hey salad, my friend has a cat that uses the toilet. however, when he tries to flush that's where the trouble begins. who says you can't train a cat?

Commenting has been disabled for this item.