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David Emery

Oscar the Death Cat - Urban Legends

By July 26, 2007

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Just in time for a needed respite from 24/7 coverage of the woes of delinquent Hollywood ingenues comes the story of Oscar, the death-predicting cat of Rhode Island. A two-year-old hospice pet characterized as "aloof" by the staff of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Oscar has made a name for himself by demonstrating an uncanny ability to detect which patients in the third-floor dementia ward are about to die.

"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

Comments

July 27, 2007 at 8:29 am
(1) Susan says:

Just before my daughter is going to have a seizure our dog goes to her and stays by her. We did not teach her that.

July 27, 2007 at 8:51 am
(2) Eva says:

I heard a story about a Blind mans dog who could detect Death. All freaked the neighbors in his apartment building

July 27, 2007 at 8:54 am
(3) Ben says:

Joe Link of Zenas IN was in Frisco when the big quake hit in ’6. He said: “the day before that quake ya couldn’t do a damn thing with a team’o horses”.

July 27, 2007 at 9:01 am
(4) jim says:

Having kept pets and been around exotics in circus for years, I am convinced that Animals are more like us than science currently believes. I believe that we CAN communicate with Animals if the Animal is willing! I believe that our house pets DO understand human language

July 27, 2007 at 9:19 am
(5) Dunny says:

This is actually nothing new. There are thousands of well-documented cases of animals, both wild and domestic, being aware of impending natural disaster, death or illness. It’s called instinct.

July 27, 2007 at 9:56 am
(6) Patti says:

One of my cats HATED my sister’s dog, which she instisted on bringing to my house when she visited. One Sunday morning, we came down to find the cat lying right next to the dog–just seemed like they had made some sort of truce. The dog died later that evening.

July 27, 2007 at 9:58 am
(7) C.Bishop says:

I have always believed that because animals have such a much stronger smell ability, they can smell the skin of a dying person to know..they are dying.

July 27, 2007 at 10:02 am
(8) Carole Bishop says:

I believe that because animals, especially dogs and cats, have such a much stronger smell process, they smell the skin of a dying person and know they are dying.

July 27, 2007 at 10:32 am
(9) Billy Bob says:

I day before my brother was shot in the head my cat fell asleep in his baseball helmet.

July 27, 2007 at 10:32 am
(10) Abby Sale says:

Although I answered “Very unlikely,” I note the comments that animals may be able to detect minimal odors and vibrations. There was a well-controlled English study on dogs detecting human cancer in situ and cancer cells in vitro.

July 27, 2007 at 11:18 am
(11) Carrie P. says:

I believe that animals have a great ability to understand, somewhat like children . Children and animals are quite alike in their abilities. we just don’t give them enough credit. Stupid humans

July 27, 2007 at 11:31 am
(12) Bubba says:

I’ve never seen a pig fly … but I got bit once by a horse-fly! Now that is weird!

Yer pal, Ferrari Bubba

July 27, 2007 at 12:48 pm
(13) Lisa says:

I strongly feel that animals have abilities to detect different things that we as human’s can not detect. The Ancient Egyptions worshped various animals as gods, Cats – Bastet and Dogs – Anubus as well as other animals. I believe the Ancient Egyptions knew alot of things that we don’t know either and they understood that there is indeed a “sixth Sense” within our Animal Kingdom.

Lisa

July 27, 2007 at 1:19 pm
(14) Bobbie says:

I do believe this is possible. Our dog lets us know there is a storm coming about an hour before it gets here. She has done this since she was 4 months old.

July 27, 2007 at 1:27 pm
(15) Rhonda Hall says:

The problem is that we as humans seem to forget, God gave us powers and through the years we have forgotten about them. All we need to do is let our body’s, mind’s etc. do the work that they were designed to do. Most people have a form of ESP. Although they don’t know how to use it or just don’t understand it, it is there in all of us. We need to pay more attention to our body’s and our mind’s.

July 27, 2007 at 4:19 pm
(16) Jos says:

There is an old southern wise tale that says cats kill babies and old people by sucking their breath at night because old people and babies are too helpless to kick the cats off the bed.

July 27, 2007 at 4:30 pm
(17) Amanda says:

I believe it completely. I have witnessed instances of it in a nursing home that I used to visit in Virginia. Also when a friend died in Florida, his cat stayed near him on the footstool until his wife came home to find him dead of a heart attack. The cat then took off and never returned. Otto was “Skunky’s” favorite person.

July 27, 2007 at 6:55 pm
(18) Chris says:

Tis true. My female cat, usually somewhat indifferent to us humans, never fails to come to me and purr and give me ‘kisses’ any time I am upset, sad, crying. My boy cats don’t get it.

July 27, 2007 at 8:16 pm
(19) L Lane says:

Thank God for the Oscar’s of the Universe.

July 27, 2007 at 8:26 pm
(20) Neat Pete says:

My cat is 17 and a half. It’s a part Burmese cat, and they don’t just sit on the end of the bed, they get right into bed with you, under the blankets!!! My cat has been doing this since it was a kitten, and I ain’t died yet.

July 28, 2007 at 7:30 am
(21) Deborah says:

Right before my daughter died my dog Molly sat on top of me and covered me with herself protectively. I adopted a cat from one of my hospice patients – at almost the moment of her death, my other cat laid down next to him and started licking him – I’m convinced

July 28, 2007 at 11:28 am
(22) Nancy says:

As a hospice social worker I heard lots of stories such as this. I recall a lung cancer patient whose cat slept curled up on his chest for most of the day; unlike his character. He also attacked the nurse when she approached the patient. I’ve seen dogs and cats mourn the loss of their loved ones too.

July 28, 2007 at 3:36 pm
(23) PK says:

In 1993 I developed phlebitis (blood clots) in my leg when I was on chemotherapy following cancer surgery and my daughter’s cat Shoebox jumped up on my bed and lay on the leg for several days and even slept there until the problem was gone. This was completely unusual behavior for him, as I don’t remember him ever sleeping with me or anyone else before or after.

July 29, 2007 at 2:39 pm
(24) Marcia, old RN says:

I believe it, instinct, empathy, experience, sense of smell, changes in breathing patterns, probably all this and more. Some people have it also, after years working with death & dying many staff develop this ability somewhat, a few use it to stay away, many use it to help patient and family prepare and relax, making passage easier for all. In my last years before I retired I had some of these instincts combined with experience and empathy. I knew when my Mother was going to die, my nephew, my brother, & years ago, my father. It isnít mysterious, itís using experience, observation, basic instincts, and being open to experience death as not always an enemy to people.

July 30, 2007 at 4:19 am
(25) Ron Johnson says:

What I come to believe is that if you take the time to honestly understand your cat/dog; the extras they display are for you and you only.

July 30, 2007 at 7:12 am
(26) wendy says:

Our Mutt Stanley senses pain… My other half has severe Rha rhumetoid Arthritis. When the pain is is exceptionally hard on him, he tries to lick his joints on the wrists. This is where the pain is the worst for him. We don’t like licking dogs so this tells me his sense is right on the money.

July 30, 2007 at 7:41 am
(27) CRISS SLYDE says:

well ma Uncle was going for a ceremony cats slept under his car all night long like they were crying, the next day my uncle survived avery fatal accident i think animals have the sixth sence

July 30, 2007 at 9:07 am
(28) Sunnshyne1999 says:

I BELIEVE THAT ANIMALS HAVE SORT OF A SIXTH SENSE THAT HUMANS DON’T HAVE.

July 30, 2007 at 10:42 am
(29) Lisa McDonald says:

I live in the Midwest, and before the tornado sirens even get a chance to go off my cats are streaking for the house. It never fails.

July 30, 2007 at 11:33 am
(30) Lisa says:

I think that Oscar the Cat’s “death predictions” serve an extremely useful purpose, alerting staff members when a patients’ end is near, in order for them to contact loved ones, so that they may have enough time to be with their family members, to express much appreciated closure farewells.

July 30, 2007 at 12:32 pm
(31) OhYeah says:

I think it’s pretty obvious that Oscar is actually killing these patients. Is anyone else in the room when he arrives to make his “prediction”? No further questions, your honor.

July 30, 2007 at 12:51 pm
(32) Ellie says:

I think it is because the person becomes very, very still when close to death. We all know that cat’s like to climb up where it is warm and safe. So the spot would be still (safe in cat terms)and as the person is not quite dead they are still warm.

July 30, 2007 at 1:42 pm
(33) Teresa Anderson says:

I am a firm believer in animals being able to sense death & tragedy. I am a volunteer for a shelter & have dealt with many different breeds & ages of cats. I also have dogs. My dogs sensed an attack that happened to me before it occurred. Cat’s have a very good way of knowing what will happen as well as other animals.I also have a very bad back. Both of my dogs seem to know when I am going to fall before I do. They follow me when they sense that I am weak & always brace themselves steady for me to fall onto or to help me stand up. These are dogs that were both adopted by me as puppies & they were never trained to be helper dogs. They are also both mixed breeds. As my oldest dog grew older & weaker he started showing my younger dog how to help me. They are always by my side when I am in massive pain. I was amazed when I realized that my oldest dog Squirt was sensing my pain & trying to help me. I was even more amazed when Squirt started showing Scrappy how to help me. They also sense every time that I have surgery. Animals are the greatest cure for pain too.

July 30, 2007 at 1:53 pm
(34) sam says:

I wish Oscar would curl up for a long time beside Paris, Nicole, Brittney and Lindsey!

July 30, 2007 at 3:22 pm
(35) Lisa says:

My German Shepherd is epileptic, and 15 minutes before a seizure, our other dog, a Samoyed, will bark at him several times for absolutely no reason. She’s right every time.

July 30, 2007 at 3:37 pm
(36) Jennifer says:

I live with my boyfriend and 2 cats. 1 cat is his (not very friendly) the other
cat she is my BABY. Always at my side, follows me everywhere (etc.) Valentine’s day this year I took my spouce to ER to find out he had Leukemia and was on the virge of death.
During the hospital stay, I recalled my cat was trying to sit near him, lay on his lap and followed him around. WE THOUGHT SHE WAS WARMING UP TO HIM (after 3 years). She is my ANGEL, I watch her now (very closely). When she follows my spouce, sits near him or just is to close to him and not me – Off we go to ER. We have made 6 trips because of her actions and on all trips
my spouce was in need of blood transfusions, platlets or an IV. She’s a better nurse than I am, I swear I will watch the cat when making a decision of his medical needs. Funny the other cat (his) doesn’t do anything different!

July 30, 2007 at 4:03 pm
(37) Deborah says:

I work in a nursing facility and we have a dog who predicts when our residents is dying. He will either go lie by their bed or in their doorway to their room. He is now retired and lives with me. He sleeps by my bed at night. Spooky!!

July 30, 2007 at 9:50 pm
(38) Ro says:

You say that if you were a patient in this facility, you wouldn’t want to see Oscar jumping up on your bed. You seem to forget that these are patients who are dying of Alzheimers and other dementias. If I were losing a long, long battle with such a cruel disease, I can think of nothing I’d want more (if there was enough of me to want anything) than the comfort of a small, warm body snugged against mine, purring, as I finally find a release from suffering.

July 31, 2007 at 6:37 am
(39) Maureen says:

When I was diagnosed with NonHodgkins lymphoma two years ago, I joined a support group and several people with cats and dogs said their pets either sat next to them, sat at their feet or would lie their necks across the site of the tumor, starting before being diagnosed up until the time they went into remission. I do believe animals can pick up on some scent or chemical change.

July 31, 2007 at 1:52 pm
(40) wild_rider2 says:

Before I was pregnant, I had read that dogs and cats will get to be more cuddley when you are expecting. Before I knew that I was pregnant, my in-laws dog got to be a real pest. She would always come over and have me hold her and pet her for 15-20 minutes when she would first come in. Within 3 weeks I found out that I was pregnant. Now that I am no longer pregnant, she leaves me alone.

July 31, 2007 at 2:53 pm
(41) Methos says:

In response to comment #35, perhaps the barking is causing the seizure!! It would for me!!!

August 1, 2007 at 7:47 pm
(42) Steven says:

that is scary if this cat came near me I would run

August 4, 2007 at 5:57 pm
(43) gmw says:

wouldnt it make sense that chemical processes give off odors the cat can smell? why all the sixth sense garbage?

August 6, 2007 at 9:40 am
(44) Tony says:

If I was a patient where Oscar is I would die if that cat even looked at me. I beleive animals are very keen to death.

August 12, 2007 at 8:28 pm
(45) Chris (Proud owner of 2 dogs and a cat) says:

Ummm…. wow you guys are about the stupidest most gullible people I’ve ever heard.

You guys must be retarded.

August 18, 2007 at 2:00 am
(46) Sue says:

I have severe nerve damage in my legs, the right leg is worse, every night , I feed ice chips to my English Bulldog, and when she is finished with her ice eating she wants to lick my legs, and surprisingly they feel better after her treatments.She only licks where the nerve damage is.No higher or no lower.
So I know she knows there is something wrong there.I have an Afrain grey Parrot that asks me “are you breathing” , when I am very tired.I use oxygen .Animal do know things we can’t even began to believe how smart they are.
Now they are training dogs for people with specials needs. Even monkeys are being trained to help army vets when they come home with no arms .
People are the dumb ones if we don’t have the sense to be aware of what the animals knows or can be trained to know.There really is no such thing as a dumb animal, only dumb people.
They , my animal know where storms are coming.

February 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm
(47) Rudy says:

You guys are retarded! There is no such thing as a death cat, if you watched Season 5 of House M.D. you would bave realized that all the people dying probably had a heating blanket on or they had a fever, and the cat is just laying on them as a source of heat..not because they are dying or it has a sixth sense. It’s no miracle people, just think!

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