"Thus far, he has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents," writes geriatrician David M. Dosa, M.D. in the New England Journal of Medicine. "His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families."
The Sixth Sense
Folk wisdom has long held that animals are endowed with a "sixth sense" forewarning them of impending natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and the like. Much was made, for example, of the behavior of dogs, elephants, and other animals in advance of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Eyewitnesses in Sumatra reported that some animals refused to go outdoors that day. Others were observed scrambling for higher ground an hour or more before the giant waves crashed ashore.
But while there is a general consensus among biologists that animals tend to have keener senses than human beings -- supported by research demonstrating that elephants can detect seismic activity at a great distance, and that birds are able to sense the earth's magnetic field and navigate by it -- a study of the actual movements of elephants equipped with GPS tracking devices in Sri Lanka found no proof of "flight behavior" in advance of the tsunami. Reams of anecdotal evidence notwithstanding, skeptics are quick to point out that to this day there is little in the way of scientific confirmation of animals possessing a sixth sense alerting them to impending disaster.
The Empathy Factor
The ability to predict someone's death would seem to entail a sixth sense of a different kind -- shall we call it a "seventh sense?" -- but one which, again, science can neither prove nor explain at the present time. We do know, thanks to a 2006 study on mice, that animals are capable of feeling empathy for the pain and suffering of others, but what could account for a sense of imminent death? Some folks go so far as to suggest that animals have psychic abilities, but even in Oscar's case the explanation could be something much more mundane. With his hypersensitive olfactory capabilities, perhaps Oscar is able to detect subtle changes in a patient's metabolism, suggests animal behavior expert Nicholas H. Dodman in the Boston Globe. What of his special attentiveness to the dying? "It may just come down to empathy," Dodman opines, noting that most cats are undeserving of the species' reputation for cold-hearted indifference.
In addition to being a harbinger of death, Oscar lends comfort and companionship to those who are about to succumb, they say, which I'm sure is a blessing to most.
Poll: How likely do you think it is that an animal could detect impending death?
1) Very likely.
2) Somewhat likely.
3) Who knows?
4) Somewhat unlikely.
5) Very unlikely.
Read More About It:
• A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat - New England Journal of Medicine
• Cat Predicts Deaths in Nursing Home - USA Today
• With a Purr, Death Comes on Little Cat Feet - Boston Globe
• Do Animals Feel Empathy? - SciAm Blog
• New Pain Research Shows Mice Capable of Empathy - Science Daily
• A Sense of Doom: Animal Instinct for Disaster - Washington Post
• Did Animals Sense Tsunami Was Coming? - National Geographic
• Behavioral Response of Satellite-Collared Elephants to Tsunami - Biotropica
• A Brief History of House Cats - Smithsonian