Friday, July 27, 2007

Cat Predicts Patients' Deaths

Oscar, a hospice cat at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I., predicts patient's deaths.
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. 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 Thursday'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 if Oscar's behavior is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Teno wonders if 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."

Source : Live Science
Oscar Cat photo courtesy : AP


NicMag said...

A Euthanizing Cat. That may be a more critical way to look at stories like this. I realize it makes a nice feel-good story to only speculate about mystical or Extra Sensory Perception type of explanations. But there is a basis in folk knowledge that attributes this phenomenon to a more sinister possibility. I has long been common to warn mothers not to let cats around sleeping infants. The “Wive’s Tale” was based on noticing that infants would die and there would be the cat. Also told was that Cats would be observed standing over infants, face-to-face “stealing” their breath. Although it may not seem like a plausible conjecture that a Cat can asphyxiate a susceptible victim, I can assure you that if a person was found to be at the site of twenty-five people who had died, the Police wouldn’t be questioning him to see if he would make a good homicide psychic.

Evelyn said...

I heard this story on our local news the other morning. I always thought it odd that the cats would hold a vigil neat a dying animal... even if it were not a feline. I never thought about it until hearing the story. I'm not sure what triggers it but I would like to think that it's an instinctual thing to not leave an animal to die alone. My instincts pull my emotions away from the terminal animal and leave only the custodial care giver. The human problem is our unique ability to over-ride that instinct and leave the emotions in tact -- not always a good thing. This is, of course, only my observation. Poor kitty, everybody must hope he keeps going when he walks by!

sfgirl said...

I disagree with nicmag...And I don't think that what the cat is doing is mystical or extra-sensory in nature at all. I think animals (including us)generally have this sensitivity about things unspoken...Humans have learned to communicate in so many other "obvious" ways that we have lost the natural ability to judge and read body language, smell, demeanor, etc. Nothing mystical--just common-sense animal smarts. Good article, Zahir!

Dreamer said...

amazing,... this is totally new to me...

AmyMeacham said...

That's eerie. I've also had cats that seem to be saying goodbye to me within a week of them dying...