Bay Area Skeptics

The San Francisco Bay Area's skeptical organization since 1982

John R. Cole, BAS Board, CSI fellow

Originally published in BASIS

July 2007 news included the case of a cat named Oscar who allegedly predicted which patients in a hospice would soon die. As SF Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll noted (30 Jul 2007), this seems a bit of a stretch.

“… Oscar’s ‘uncanny knack of knowing when people are going to die’ [looks fishy]. Apparently he walks aloofly around the halls of the Providence, R.I., nursing home where he lives, and then settles down with a person who, only a few hours later, dies. Oscar somehow intuits the imminence of death and provides succor in these last hours – or so the story goes.

“From the evidence, an equally viable theory is that Oscar kills people, but no one has mentioned that possibility.

“The staffers at the nursing home have suggested that perhaps Oscar ‘notices telltale scents,’ although if dying has its own distinctive odor, you’d think someone else would have noticed it by now. Cats don’t have particularly sensitive noses; if a dog was cuddling with pre-croak patients, we might have something.

“Another theory floated is that Oscar notices telltale behavior, although – what might that telltale behavior be? Why haven’t nurses noticed it? Shouldn’t we be hiring nurses who are more perceptive than cats about health issues, particularly imminent death? ‘We all think it’s just a head cold, but that cat says it’s cancer. You might want to get your affairs in order.’ Talk about spooky.

“Besides, the whole story is fishy, you should pardon the expression. Empathy is not really a cat virtue. They rarely notice human quirks that do not directly relate to their own well-being. Horses, by contrast, are herd animals, and are thus exquisitely sensitive to the moods and habits of the beings around them. Maybe the nursing home should hire a horse. ‘Here, Buttermilk, take a look at Mrs. Peterborough.'”

BAS Board Member Norm Sperling suggested, tongue cattily in cheek, that perhaps Oscar is just a cover story for a serial killer on a warped euthanasia mission. I wondered how many laps Oscar actually napped on; in a hospice he was certain to curl up with a dying patient fairly often. Could observers be ignoring “negative hits” and emphasizing positive results? Are weak and dying patients least likely to kick the cat off?

Yes, I suppose it is possible that Oscar can sense something about dying patients beyond immobility???rather like animals are said to sense earthquakes. Trouble is, every study so far of quake-sensing has come up negative???folklore or legend, not fact.

I am not anti-cat???one of my best friends is a cat. I think cats and other pets can seem gentle and concerned when “their humans” are ill. But I also know that there is no actual experimental evidence showing actual empathy in small-brained mammals (as opposed to apes and perhaps dolphins and even elephants). Cats and other pets can clearly show self-interest by being gentle with injured monsters such as the humans they live with. It is very easy to anthropomorphize this???to read too much human emotion and thought pattern into it. Pets are comforting to us, even though they may just be making nice with the weird creatures who open the Purina bag.

And Oscar? Couldn’t he be doing his best to get along and keep the Purina flowing, curling up with humans least likely to kick him out and earning praise from other humans? Maybe showing some appreciation for a quiet snooze? And isn’t a fair amount of human empathy a bit similar to this, as well?

Thanks are due to Jon Carroll for his skeptical take on a cuddly story and for his recognition that there are multiple explanations possible for things???even seemingly “aw, shucks” events.

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