Feline perception

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PREMONITORY INSTINCT: Oscar on its rounds at the hospice.
PREMONITORY INSTINCT: Oscar on its rounds at the hospice.

A nursing home cat’s quirk

PROVIDENCE: 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. Its accuracy level, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once it has chosen someone. It usually means the patient has 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. He describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Many family members take solace from it. They appreciate the companionship the cat provides for their dying loved one,” said the geriatrics assistant professor at Brown University.

The two-year-old was adopted and grew up in a dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre that treats people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other illnesses.

After about six months, the staff members noticed Oscar would make its own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. It would sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people — who would end up dying in the next few hours.

Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University. She was convinced of Oscar’s talent when it made its 13th correct call. While observing one patient, Dr. Teno said she noticed the woman was not eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.

Oscar would not stay inside the room though, so Dr. Teno thought its streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor’s prediction was some 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient’s final two hours Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.

No one is certain if Oscar’s behaviour is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Dr. Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents or reads something into the behaviour of the nurses.

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioural clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and read Dr. Dosa’s article, said the only way to know is to document carefully how Oscar divides its time between the living and dying.

It is possible its behaviour could be driven by self-centred pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, he said. — AP

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