Thursday, July 26, 2007

The cat that can predict death

Ignoring the horrible headline, this article is fascinating. Make sure to follow the link to the New England Journal Of Medicine article about this kitty from Rhode Island.

The footsteps down the corridor of the Steere House Nursing And Rehabilitation Centre are light but purposeful as Oscar makes his way towards the end of the hallway and stops outside room 310.

The door is pulled firmly shut and, untroubled, he sits down outside it, and waits some 25 minutes until a nurse's aide appears, her arms full of dirty linen.

"Ah, Oscar," she smiles, and with a nod, almost as if she were expecting him, allows him to pass into the room where a frail elderly lady, her body ravaged by cancer, is sleeping fitfully. Oscar sniffs ostentatiously around, resists the blandishments of the relatives gathered round the bedside, struts out and continues on his round. For the lady in room 310, the time has not yet come.

The patient in the next room into which Oscar pokes his grey-and-white head is not so lucky. This time, Oscar weighs the situation carefully, then leaps on to the bed and curls up beside the woman lying in it.

A few moments later he is spotted, snuggled up there, by a passing nurse who immediately raises the alarm, not kick-starting a security alert to rid the ward of an unwanted intruder but a frenetic flurry of activity as medical records are fetched, a priest is called, and relatives are alerted to the likelihood of the patient's imminent demise.

Because Oscar, as everyone in this nursing home is agreed, has special powers - more even than the doctors and palliative care specialists who come to tend to the terminally ill here.

Yet his skills of divination are beyond question - and have even been the subject of an article in as august a publication as the New England Journal Of Medicine. To date he has predicted the deaths of 25 patients, and done so with such accuracy that he has completely won the trust of even the initially incredulous medical staff.

"This cat really seems to know when patients are about to die," says Dr David Dosa, a geriatrician at Rhode Island hospital who also attends patients at Steere House.

So what draws him so strongly towards those who are nearing the very end of their lives?

"That's actually the most puzzling part of it," observes Daniel Mills, a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine at Lincoln University. He believes the idea that a cat, or indeed another animal, might be able to intuitively sense the proximity of death is not nearly as fanciful as it seems.

"Animals are particularly sensitive to a whole range of cues of which we are not always aware and can pick up on minute chemical changes," he explains. "For example, you can train a dog to predict an epilepsy fit in a patient before they even sense it themselves, or even detect cancer, so it seems reasonable to suppose you might be able to train a cat to detect that a person was terminally ill, particularly as they have such a good sense of smell.

"The challenge is that it's hard to see what the cat might get out of it. After all, the person they've gone to sit with dies - so why should it engage in that sort of behaviour?"

During my years of nearly 17 years of private practice with dogs and cats, I have seen many different responses from animals to the passing of another animal or a person in the house. As a result, when my clients ask "What should I expect from my other animals when this one passes away?", I often tell them it is very difficult to predict.

I've seen animal pairs who seem very attached where the one left behind doesn't seem phased by the passing. On the other hand, I've also seen situations where animals don't seem particularly close, and yet the one left behind certainly seems to go into a deep depression.

It will obviously take much more research to figure out the details, but I do agree with the behaviorist that animals can certainly sense things which escape humans. Perhaps they can pick up emotions or body language humans may overlook due to their own prejudices or emotions at the time. And certainly there is still much to learn about the incredible sense of smell possessed by both dogs and cats.

Anyone else have experience with animals sensing illness or death?

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