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July 29, 2007


Well, I figured it was because he wanted to eat the patients' brains, and keeps hoping noone will notice him going into the patients' rooms. It was a real pleasure to be able to forward the link to my family under the subject line 'Oscar the Death Cat'.

I would shoo the furball away if it came anywhere near me.

It's a hospice ward. The question is not if they will die, but when. If any of these people were in any frame of mind to recognize this, they may be pleased to welcome Oscar to the end of their terminal illness.

Un-Oh -- I better head over to PetSmart and pick up a new Sheepskin Cat Bed, and some gourmet treats...

Hasn't there been research in the past few years suggesting that dogs' ability to pick up cues from humans is even greater than previously thought?

Could the same be true for cats?

We've actually known about animals' ability to pick up cues, an ability known as the Clever Hans effect for just about a century now.

True, it could something along the lines of "Clever Hans". A very clever horse indeed. I think the Doc is onto something when he suggests Oscar may be smelling something we can't. Cats can hear the A/C current humming in your electrical outlets so I suppose they could also smell the hint of decay on a dying body. It would make sense to me that a predator would evolve that ability. Predators usually take the sick and dying as they are the easiest to catch.

I've read of dogs smelling an eplipetic seizure about to take place (though I'm not sure how you would be certain it was smell and not for example hearing that triggered it).

There's a thread on this at PrawfsBlawg. Dogs can smell certain kinds of cancers -- this has been rumored for some time, and studies have consistently affirmed it within the past few years.

"dogs' ability to pick up cues from humans is even greater than previously thought?

Could the same be true for cats?"

I suspect studies would show that cats' ability to read as well as their disinterest in reading human cues is even greater than previously thought.


It's smell because epileptic seizures occur because of certain electrochemical impulses in the brain. These currents can be sensed by smell if you happen to have the incredibly olfactory sensors that dogs have. This isn't really all that unusual -- sharks hunt prey using a similar mechanism. It's why they tell you not to splash around and panic if you see sharks -- they can sense the electrochemical impulses given off if you panic, and predators like distressed prey.

I don't know. I'm skeptical. Why is the cat spending time with somebody about to die? What is reinforcing this behavior? How does the doctor control for observer bias? Does the cat even curl up with someone who isn't at death's door? How much time typically passes between the cat first lying down and time of death? These questions need to be addressed before we go all Leonard Nimoy on a WaPo story.

"These currents can be sensed by smell"

That can't be right. Fish can sense electric potentials via the lines down their sides iirc, but that's not chemical in nature.

Thanks, rilkefan, I stand corrected. Regardless of whether the sense involved is olfactory or electrosensory, dogs' ability to sense such phenomena are generally accepted, IMO.

Taking this as an open thread. . .
Does anyone have a particularly effective trick for keeping track of the comment thread on a post? E-mail notification or something? I assume there must be one, and that people aren't actually remembering to go back and check the comments every twenty minutes to keep up with the arguments.
I have to admit that I only occasionally feel like I have anything to contribute, but I feel somehow intellectually dishonest jumping in with a comment and then disappearing from the thread because it's just too damn inconvenient to try to keep up with it manually.

Joe Thomas: "disappearing from the thread"

As far as I know there is no community blame attached to not sticking around to argue a point.

I rely on skimming and reskimming to keep up to the extent I do. I think it's good form to include the (bolded) name of the commenter to whom I'm replying if there are intervening comments, which makes said skimming much simpler. I do so when I'm not lazy or pressed for time.

Unfortunately, the comment threads themselves, don't have an RSS feed, so the best way to keep up is to look at the recent comments bar on the right side. This can be a problem if another thread is boiling over, but generally, one can see that at least one comment has been made and you can check to see what you've missed. I don't know what time zone you are in, but the main participation times seem to be around the lunch hour in the states, if I have the time offset calculated correctly.

After 25 tries, you'd think Oscar might have figured out that he won't be allowed to eat the prey he finds dying...

I don't think Oscar is looking for dinner. Cats are predators, not scavengers. And, at least great cats in the wild, they don't necessarily wait for their prey to be dead before chomping in, just for it to be incapacitated. If Oscar wanted a little long pig, one would expect him to dig in as soon as he figured out that the prey wasn't going anywhere. Maybe it's confirmation bias, maybe the cat is detecting something subtlely different about these patients, heck, maybe the Egyptian's were right about the cats and souls thing...

I'm no expert on ancient Egypt, but why would the Egyptians revere cats and keep them around if they thought they were stealing souls? I think Dr. Dosa is confused.

Can you imagine that phone call. "Sir, we have reason to believe that your mother is about to pass on. We hope you can come by to observe her last rights. Yes I'm afraid the Cat is never wrong in these cases."

Perhaps sad, perhaps ridiculous

Looks like we have another diagnostic use for the cat scan.

(somebody had to say it ...)

Lucifer Sam, Siam cat!

That cat's something I can't explain.

Oh for crying out loud! Why can you folks ascribe ill motives to the cat but benign ones to dogs? As someone who has actually had cats in her life, I can tell you that in over 50 years of cat companionship, I have witnessed many acts of compassion on the part of cats--including curling up with the ill, or the dying, staying with them, and even mourning, or so it looked, after their passing. I have talked to several people over the years with similar stories, including one woman I know whose cat will detect illness in her children before the woman does (by lying close to them on the bed or chair in a protective manner). Sense of smell? Maybe. I think there might be something in the hearing line--there's some evidence of cats vocalizing in a frequency we can't hear, but other cats can, maybe they hear changes in heart rate or such.

The Egyptians worshipped cats, they did not think they stole souls. Dr. Dosa may need a little remedial history.

RIP Oscar...
Oscar, the nursing home cat who could seemingly sense the impending death of patients, was found dead early yesterday...
Officials at the facility would not reveal the cause of death, but did acknowledge rumors that the cat was becoming increasingly unpopular among the patients. One knowledgeable source - who agreed to speak with us on the condition of anonymity - confirmed increasing animosity toward the animal, and that a dented bedpan was found near the body.

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