26 July 2007

Oscar the Cat or Hans the Horse?

Today's big news is about Oscar, the cat who can apparently sense when a patient at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, is about to die. An essay by Dr. David M. Dosa published today in the New England Journal of Medicine states that Oscar "has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents" and that "His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death".

It is possible that Oscar is smelling something, a perfume of death, so to speak, given off from the bodies of patients about to die. Perhaps there is a volatile breakdown product of deteriorating brain tissues too faint for humans to detect, but that is easy to track down by a keen predator.

However, I am suspecting a Clever Hans effect. Oscar is probably picking up subtle clues from the medical staff that a certain patient is near death. He is then paying a last visit to the person in return for compliments and maybe a pat on the head from the staff members.

Read about this also on Laelaps.


Laelaps said...

Thanks for the link and your thoughts on the subject. I was curious if it was a Clever Hans-type effect too, only that in the BBC article it said that Oscar becomes very upset if removed from the room. This would suggest a more biochemical aspect to me (as morbid as it sounds, maybe a pheromone/chemical akin to a kind of catnip), but I wouldn't rule out what you said here. Thanks again!


Well, you know, cats get upset if they are removed from any place involuntarily regardless of if there is a dying person there or not.

Another problem with the case of Oscar is that it isn't a controlled study.

deniz said...

I think the smelling-something-humans-can't idea is closer to the truth; otherwise wouldn't many more animals exhibit that sort of Celver Hans behaviour? There's been only a few other cases like this before...
(word verification: mpsiqgf)

xoggoth said...

Always the rationalist! Personally, I think Oscar actually causes these deaths by sucking out their souls. He then beams them telepathically to other cats around the world. How else do cats have nine lives? They steal them from old ladies!

Anonymous said...

I think the mostly likely explanation is the cat is a serial killer.
no longer satisfied with the food the staff is feeding him, the cat is showing some initiative in bagging his own game from the weakest of the herd.

Way to go Oscar!

xoggoth said...

That too is a much more plausible theory than all that pheremone/chemical stuff from our worthy blogger host. He probably sits on their faces and suffocates them while the staff are not looking or drops dead mice into their life support machines.

tez said...

i happen to work where oscar lives.. he doesnt smother the patients. I am the kind of person who has to see things like that to belive it.. and i have seen him do this at least three times.. i work the night shift. If i ever saw this article and didnt know this cat, i would wonder myself..
He is not a spooky cat like some people have said. We have a total of six cats in the building. I would rather that the article focus on how animals are important to he elderly, and not how one cat is there when someone dies. I have seen some families be comforted with him there at their loved ones last hours though.

thank you.



Tez: Thanks for your comments. I don't think anyone, at least on this blog, was seriously suggesting that Oscar was the one who was killing the patients. Those were mostly tongue-in-cheek remarks.

I do seriously believe, however, that Oscar's ability to pick out the dying patients is a Clever Hans effect.