28 July 2007

A Cat Who Can Smell Death

Meet Oscar, a very special cat who can predict death. Six months after being adopted as a kitten by the personnel of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (a dementia centre which cares for people with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease) in Providence, Rhode Island, he began practicing his uncanny abilities by doing his daily rounds, and staying long enough on the beds of those who are about to die.

His batting average? 'Pretty good. He seldom makes mistakes, and has accurately predicted 25 deaths already. If he sits in the bed of someone, that person usually has less than five hours to live.

Dr. David Dosa is the geriatrician who wrote about Oscar last Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine, a prestigious and respected medical journal. I read the NEJM regularly, and I must say this is the first time I have read about animals predicting death in the journal. You can read Dr. Dosa's full article about Oscar here.

Here's an excerpt of what he does:
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.

[NEJM, 26 July 2007]

Oscar has been called a "champion," and a plaque commending him for his abilities to predict death accurately hangs in the wall of the nursing home. The image on the right, which I grabbed hurriedly from NBC's Nightly News, shows that. What a terrific cat, I must say!

How does he do it?

Doctors are puzzled how Oscar does it, but animal behavior experts said that Oscar is probably able to sense (by smelling) a chemical given off by the human body that is about to die. What that chemical is, no one knows yet.

Another amazing thing mentioned in the news is that Oscar is a cat. Cats are described more to be as "selfish and solitary creatures." If Oscar was a dog, it would have been easier to understand. Dogs have been shown to detect cancers and predict epileptic attacks.

Then again, that opinion must probably be a form of discrimination. Cats must be studied more on how they can predict death as it approaches. In the future, when doctors order a "cat-scan," there will be a whole new meaning to it.

3 reactions:

rolly said...

I don't think I'd like to have a cat like that. NOt only would I want knowing in advance that a loved one is dying, but more so would I want knowing about my impending death. I am one who wouldn't even want to know what sex my pregnant wife is carrying. I just love the uncertainties of life, I guess. I love surprises!

Mec said...

i guess... older people are more accepting of their impending death, so they don't mind very much that a cat sort of announces it to them and their families...

but this is both creepy and amazing indeed...

Anonymous said...

Where I can find it?