Thursday, July 26, 2007

Oscar, the Cat of Death

Oscar is a special cat. He, allegedly, predicts death.
"Oscar the cat seems to know when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Apparently his track record consists already of 25 predictions. The nursing center is already calling family members, when Oscar curls up next to a patient. Usually the patients only live four more hours after Oscar joins them."

James Randi or Michael Shermer need to investigate this one. A death kitty!?! Can you imagine being a patient in the nursing home and seeing that cat stroll through the door? I just don't know that I'd want my last minutes heralded in by tuna breath. *gag*

So... what are the theories on this cat?
I wonder if there's some chemical scent that dying people give off?


Russ said...

I say that from a cat's comfort seeking perspective a dying person is like a hammock to a human on the best of days. A dying person moves very little; they're still warm; they don't respond adversely to tuna breath; they may well be far too weak to swat a cat that causes discomfort.

It's no magical cat. It's a cat which finds a spot of comfort on a warm body too far gone to respond to it and interrupt its nap.

robd said...

Perhaps this cat is owned by
The Grim Reaper.
He comes looking for it, and then
goes back to work.....

J. said...

I think it's rather unfair to discredit entirely the idea that this cat has some sort of oddball, yet shockingly useful, ability to sense the impending passing of those nearby. It is not unheard of for animals to exhibit abnormal behavior prior to an abnormal occurrence. I dare say that it is not merely a random happenstance.

Also, Russ, your opinion on this matter seems to have been made without a thorough review of the "facts" as presented in the multiple articles and blurbs that have been strewn about all forms of media since yesterday. By all accounts, this was a very anti-social, keep to itself kind of cat, and it only cozies up to those that are near death. With that in mind, your theory that the cat prefers those that are too ill to send it away is inherently flawed, as it has been repeatedly stated that the cat only goes to the dying.

That would infer, logically, that the animal discriminates, if you will, against those that are not on the verge of expiring, therefore proving that your take on the situation is without merit. It simply avoids those that are "fine," and gravitates toward those that are not. It is not an animal of prey that waits for something to be weakened to strike, or, in this case, to sleep.

Saurian200 said...


Of course, the simplest explanation is that the cat is just killing these people himself.

I'm telling you, the cat isn't being friendly with dying patents, he's marking his next victims.

Sombody has to stop him! Quick before he kills again!

amarullis said...

Cats are very sensitive to both the mood and the health of humans and other animals. Their behavior can change dramatically in response to different health and mental issues. I have seen it many times with my cats over the years. One cat may clue us in that another is sick or come running the moment we find out something bad has happened. They sense things we can not, as they still possess the senses humans lost when we became 'civilized.' I think Oscar goes to the people that need to be comforted. For him I think laying next to them, giving them his warmth, is what we would think of as holding someone while the pass.

Aerik said...

I have a Photo of the real cat in question here. The other cat is only a decoy.

Chris said...

Simple: The cat doesn't sleep next to the person, the cat sleeps on their face, suffocating them.



Johnny said...

j. said "It is not unheard of for animals to exhibit abnormal behavior prior to an abnormal occurrence. I dare say that it is not merely a random happenstance."

I believe you are equating death with abnormality. I had to stop reading your comment after that.

Gramomster said...

Having a slew of cats, this really doesn't surprise me. They do seem to 'know' things about each other, or the kids. Kind of Lassie-ish, if you will.

I tend to think that there probably is some kind of chemical/scent cue that might explain the cat's attraction to the dying. Our chemistry changes during various physical and emotional changes, so that would make sense.

This also made me remember the dog from a couple of years ago who, without fail, could detect tumors. Also, there is a growing service dog sector for animals that can sense impending epileptic seizures. The dogs know it's coming before the person does, and the dog signals the epileptic to get to a safe place before the seizure hits. Weird...

Joy said...

Just as we don't appreciate how theists jump to a "god did it" conclusion for mysterious circumstances, I don't think atheists should be so quick to discredit an occurance like this just because it's a little strange. Does the cat hang with the grim reaper? No. But I'm with the other posters who reference animals' "sixth sense" with certain happenings - bad weather, death, illness - why shouldn't this strike we scientific types as interesting, not silly?

DAJ said...

This is not too difficult to explain. Nursing home patients usually die very slowly from a combination of dehydration and malnutrition. This is associated with liver and kidney failure. Uremia is the end result. Uremia causes the patient to have a very subtle, but distinctive odor. Doc's often refer to this as the "smell of death".

This cat, whose ability to smell far exceeds ours, is simply attracted to that odor. Nothing more, nothing less.

This is just another example of the media's love for "supernatural" and the public's desire to find the "oddball, yet shockingly useful, ability" or "sixth sense".

Eamon Knight said...

To really confirm this as a real phenomenom, someone would have to observe the cat systematically, to establish the correlation between curling up with a resident, and the fate of that resident over the next few hours. And really, nurses have more important things to do. But assuming it is real, it's probably (as speculated) some subtle physiological cue, like scent.

As a cat-lover, I think it's sweet. When my time comes, I would like it if there was a purring cat at my side. I'm sure my late mother would have felt the same way.

I've also often thought that, if I were stricken with a terminal illness, and was having trouble dealing with the prospect of my impending demise, one way I would handle it would be to personify Death as the Pratchett character. Anyone who thinks CATS ARE NICE can't be too bad ;-).

Jennifer said...


..."why shouldn't this strike we scientific types as interesting, not silly?"

I'm confused as to how you perceive we haven't expressed interest in this matter. In fact, Pmomma's lead-off question was "So... what are the theories on this cat? I wonder if there's some chemical scent that dying people give off?" That's hardly a brush-off or a denial.

I think you're confusing our prediliction to find real-world, testable answers with treating the issue as silly or unreal. To the contrary: we would love to see this one investigated. How useful and interesting!

Many people are aware that animals can sense things that we don't (reference the comment about the seizure-predicting dogs). It's not that we deny that these things are real, it's just that we believe they're due to mundane, real-world, chemical and physical properties (i.e., the dog sensing electrical changes in a person's body, the cat sensing chemical changes given off by a dying person), as opposed to some magical, mysterious, undetectable "senses humans lost when we became 'civilized'", as one poster posited.

Joy said...


I'm with you that this has a "real-world, testable answer". My point was that some posters seemed quick to mock instead of show any genuine interest. If there is a way that we could utilize animals in a medical setting due to their heightened senses, I would find that fascinating.

erin said...

I really think that, on some level, animals can sense hormonal/temperature changes. Whether or not the cat actually knows that these people are going to die is debatable, but perhaps there is something that attracts the cat to these people, that makes it lose its normally shy persona.
One of my good friends has the world's most obnoxious dog. He's very hyper and would follow me around humping me CONSTANTLY every time I saw him. When I was about 5 weeks pregnant (the first time I saw him when pregnant), his demeanor changed. He no longer humped me, and instead, simply wanted to be near me. I'd sit on the couch, and he'd curl up with his body around mine. I don't think the dog knew that I was pregnant (though there were many jokes flung around about him thinking it was his baby due to the humping), but I do think that he was responding to some difference in my body.

DAJ said...

that is being done. several studies have been done evaluating a dog's ability to smell human urine and detect prostate and other cancers that produce substances that are excreted in the urine. The specially- trained dogs were very successful. Unfortunately it's not a very practical thing to put into our everyday practice. But is fun thinking about the possibilities.

Jennifer said...


I see where you're coming from. I think what you're seeing is partially because this is a boisterous and intelligently silly group. ;) And, admit it, there is something inherently giggle-inducing about the "Cat of Death"...conveying doom with its furry little paws! Muwahaha...ok, well it's funny to me, at least.

I think also the mocking stems from the fact that this is the sort of event the woo people generally like to throw into the mystical magical special "sixth sense of the precious cuddly animals" category of phenomena (which some posters here have already demonstrated). It doesn't mean the phenomena itself still doesn't need explaining (provided, of course, that it does actually exist and isn't due to selection bias/wishful thinking or some other such logical error). So, it's not the event per se we're making fun of, it's the people who immediately jump to the conclusion that it must be some sort of animal mysticism.

That's my very long-winded way of saying "it's all good, homie." ;)

Poodles Rule said...

Personally I think it's a serial killer that picks their victims by whomever the cat lays by. :P "ooh old man Joe has the cat tonight..."

Seriously, I think it is probably both an odor and sound the animal is reacting to. If you have ever been up close and personal with someone who is close to death they can make a sound that is sometimes called a "death rattle". It is how the air sounds when the lungs are shutting down.

Animals are very sensitive. My oldest dog knows my grandfather can't hear so anytime my grandmother yells for my grandfather the dog runs and barks at him. Now that my dog is dying of cancer the other two dogs demeanors toward him have changed, they will go up to him and kiss him and just try to snuggle up to him.

Ginny said...

Animals are very sensitive. My oldest dog knows my grandfather can't hear so anytime my grandmother yells for my grandfather the dog runs and barks at him. Now that my dog is dying of cancer the other two dogs demeanors toward him have changed, they will go up to him and kiss him and just try to snuggle up to him.

That's really cool that your oldest dog does that. I'm sorry to hear about the cancer...

Joy said...


Good to know. :) Word.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. :) I'll ask ds to tell me when he sees the full report in Skeptic magazine. I also put in my (thoroughly non-medical-expert) vote for scent changes as the explanation.

amarullis said...

Jennifer- To clarify, when I said "senses humans lost when we became 'civilized'" I was referring to real world type senses, ability to smell, see, feel things we can not (since we no longer need these senses to survive).
Erin- Your story of the humping dog reminds me of the story my parents love to tell about when my mom first became pregnant. They were having an argument (both with raised voices) and our dog, who normally preferred my dad's company, suddenly went on attack mode to defend my mom from my dad, growling and slobbering. She did this any time my dad raised his voice during my mom's pregnancies, but never when my mom was without child.

Jennifer said...


Thanks for the clarification. ;) I kinda see what you're getting at.

Will now retire from the debate, and catch up on video games....

Russ said...


What fascinates me most about articles like this one is the response by the public. It demonstrates just how credulous - read that gullible, if you like - the general public really is.

J. said "Also, Russ, your opinion on this matter seems to have been made without a thorough review of the "facts" as presented in the multiple articles and blurbs that have been strewn about all forms of media since yesterday."

To this J, I can only ask for you to tell me anything that we can take as a reliable fact. Nothing I have seen in the media appears to constitute credible evidence. None of the media-based information presented seems to have been accrued via any observational technique other than hearsay or wishful thinking. We have no idea who the observers are, what their biases are, to what extent they would simply like there to be a death-predicting cat, how many people die without the cat present, does the cat pick up on some change in procedure that the staff executes when end is near(remember, humans are keeping vigil, too), does everyone near death get oxygen which due to shallow breaths by the patient spills out into the room making the atmosphere more pleasing to a feline. We have no idea how suggestible the staff members are. There are so many things we don't and can't know from the media.

Recall this from one of the articles:
"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 Thursday's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Notice Dosa's willingness to anthropomorphize the cat's "death sense" when he says the cat "seems to understand," but it is not "understand" in the human sense. This makes for prose that tugs them ol' heartstrings, but it also associates false attributes to the cat. Notice also that the article referenced is an essay in the NEJM, not a research paper. Nothing written in these media blurbs can be taken as fact.

I know full well that as life wanes, physiology is drastically altered and metabolic indicators like blood chemistry can change enough that they effect the scent of the breath, the odor of the urine, and the smell of body sweat. These changes in odor are usually noticed by any attentive attendant. I worked in a nursing home in the sixties, my mom was a geriatric nurse, my sister is an in-home hospice care provider, and my mother in law is a recovery room nurse. From my conversations with them, we are all acutely aware of the indicators that death is near. It would not be surprising if the cat is detecting a peculiar scent that attracts it to the dying.

For anyone familiar with the nursing home scene, it is also not surprising that a cat responding to a specific "death odor" resulting from a consistent end-of-life physiology change would be better than the human employees at sensing imminent death. For a human to pick up on the changes in a dying person that indicate that death is near, they need to have some familiarity with them. In nursing homes that familiarity is often lacking since the rate of employee turnover - all employees whether doctors, nurses, or hands-on caregivers - is extremely high.

I'd bet that if nursing homes began to employ some slightly more advanced analytical chemistry techniques like GC/Mass Spec to analyze the chemicals in the various scents of the dying, they could significantly boost the accuracy "time 'til death" predictions for those dying of degenerative conditions. They could even get to be much better than a cat. But, of course, no one would care about that.

And don't forget this from the same article from which I quoted Dr. Dosa:

"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."

I'm clearly not the only one who considered it from this perspective.

AlisonM said...

My thought, as a long-time cat slave, was that he, as an anti-social cat, was looking for a warm body to lie on where he wouldn't have to be bothered with that annoying petting and talking stuff. The nurses also said that they had tried putting him on patients' beds, only to have him leave and come back later when the person was closer to death (and those pesky talking, petting, in-your-whiskery-face nurses were out of the way.)

I've known more than a few cats that will climb on laps, but leave or lash out at you if you make any moves to disrupt their comfort. I've known cats that will snuggle up only with sleeping people, staying if they move but don't wake, but leaving as soon as they detect consciousness.

Before trying to come up with a scientific explanation of how the cat can detect oncoming demise, I'd go with the materialistic explanation of a snotty cat that wants to be with people who provide a physical comfort without insisting on social interaction. Betcha the cat disappears as soon as potential "petters" arrive, or the body cools down - whichever comes first. Selfish little bastige.

Tatarize said...

Oh, Oscar curled up around Mr. Wilcox. Better give him a huge shot of morphine, he'll be dead in a few hours, and best to reduce the pain.