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Cat's 'Sixth Sense': Predicting Death?

Nursing Home Cat Named Oscar Seems to Know When Death Is Near

How Does He Know?

Explaining Oscar's track record and seeming ability to "read" a resident's end-of-life stages and predict death is a mystery, Dosa and others at the nursing home acknowledge. "Your guess is as good as mine," Dosa says when asked how Oscar picks up the sense of impending death.

"We know from some objective findings when death is imminent," Dosa says. For instance, if respirations grow difficult in a very sick patient, he says, doctors may tell loved ones death will probably occur soon.

The cat, however, might be picking up on specific odors surrounding death, Dosa and others say.

"I think there are certain chemicals released when someone is dying, and he is smelling and sensing those," says Joan Teno, MD, professor of community health and medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, R.I., who also cares for Steere House residents.

Another possibility: "I think he is following the patterning behavior of the staff," Teno tells WebMD. "This is an excellent nursing home. If a dying person is alone, the staff will actually go in so the patient is not alone. They will hold a vigil."

Oscar has seen that pattern repeated many times, she says, and may be mimicking it.

"Animals are intuitive," she says. "We don't give them enough credit."

One of the first cases, Teno says, involved a resident who had a blood clot in her leg. "Her leg was ice cold," Teno says. "Oscar wrapped his body around her leg," she says, and stayed until the woman died.

Animal Experts Weigh In

Three animal behavior experts say the explanation about Oscar sensing a smell associated with dying is a plausible one.

"I suspect he is smelling some chemical released just before dying," says Margie Scherk, DVM, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, an organization devoted to improving the health and well-being of cats, and a veterinarian in Vancouver, British Columbia. "Cats can smell a lot of things we can't," she says. "And cats can certainly detect illness."

"Cats have a superb sense of smell," adds Jill Goldman, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Laguna Beach, Calif. In Oscar's case, she says, keeping a dying resident company may also be learned behavior. "There has been ample opportunity for him to make an association between 'that' smell [and death]," she says.

While the sense of smell may be one explanation, there could be another, says Daniel Estep, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Littleton, Colo. "One of the things that happen with people who are dying is that they are not moving around much. Maybe the cat is picking up on the fact that the person on the bed is very quiet. It may not be smell or sounds, but just the lack of movement."

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