Nursing home cat identifies terminal patients?

Contributed by
Jul 26, 2007

I read with great interest an Associated Press article about Oscar the Cat, a 2 year old feline in Providence, R.I., who lives in a nursing home and who, according to the staff there, can accurately predict when a patient is near death.

Stories like this abound, of course, but they are usually very credulous, claiming psychic abilities or some such silliness. One BABlogee who sent this to me (cough cough Emily cough cough) mentioned the article had an unusually skeptical bent. I am skeptical of claims of skepticism, so, skeptically, I checked it out.

Emily's right! The article starts off talking about the cat's behavior (it appears to tend to cuddle up to patients who wind up dying within hours) and then offers this:

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.

HOORAY! That's precisely correct. We have a tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses, so it's very important to look for those misses. Does the cat really spend more time with dying patients, or is that merely when the staff notices? Maybe the cat curls up with anybody, and the staff remembers later when the patient dies. This is a variation of the Full Moon Effect, which is known without doubt to be bogus.

Even better, the article goes on,

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.

So even if Oscar does tend to visit the dying more often, it may not be due to anything more than the special treatment given to patients under those circumstances.

I am thrilled that an article would mention this, and also that nowhere in there is any mention of psychic or special powers of animals.

The article also says many families take solace in the fact that the cat is there, and I can understand that. I have a cat myself, and I remember (fuzzily) studies showing that cats -- especially their purring -- can have a calming effect. I imagine for many people, having a cat around for those last moments with a family member would mitigate things, if even a little. It's times like those that people's minds are more easily swayed by things that aren't true, but that we wish were true. I'm glad that the article was written the way it was.

Hat Tip to the many folks who sent this to me, including, of course, Emily.

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