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Death finds us (furb)all
July 25, 2007 2:55 PM   Subscribe

Oscar the cat. Harbinger of death. (more info available behind registration at the NEJM)
posted by revmitcz (95 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
O HAI

I CAN HAS GRIM REAPER
posted by fandango_matt at 2:59 PM on July 25, 2007


Ah, you sadly fumbled that one, fandango-matt.

O HAI.

I CAN HAS YOUR SOUL.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:00 PM on July 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


IM IN UR HOSPICE
BRINGIN' UR BAD NOOZ
posted by revmitcz at 3:04 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


DO NOT WANT RESUSATAT!
posted by zerobyproxy at 3:04 PM on July 25, 2007


He's killing them.
posted by quin at 3:06 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Fucking breath sucking demon cat.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:07 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


If my stupid cat curls up next to me again...it's out the window for her.
posted by winks007 at 3:08 PM on July 25, 2007


Metafilter has come to this. revmitcz posts a deeply heart-rending story about human mortality and feline affection, and all you guys can think to do is make catty comments.
posted by googly at 3:09 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


HALP
posted by tristeza at 3:10 PM on July 25, 2007


INVIZIBLE SICKLE
posted by PlusDistance at 3:12 PM on July 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


It really is a very touching story.

Nevertheless...

UR SOUL

IT HAS A FLAVR.
posted by o2b at 3:15 PM on July 25, 2007 [8 favorites]


None of these LOLCAT comments are bad, and yet all of them are.
posted by davejay at 3:19 PM on July 25, 2007


IM IN YER COFIN RATTLIN YER BONEZ
posted by davejay at 3:21 PM on July 25, 2007


I'd like to meet that cat.
posted by batmonkey at 3:27 PM on July 25, 2007


THIS DEATHS...

... IS SUFFICIENTS
posted by boo_radley at 3:27 PM on July 25, 2007


IM IN UR BRAINZ GIVIN U DEMENTIAZ
posted by joseph_elmhurst at 3:29 PM on July 25, 2007


U IS KICK BUCKIT
posted by mr_crash_davis at 3:29 PM on July 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


so, you know we're all retards in here, right?
posted by boo_radley at 3:34 PM on July 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Okay, silly comments aside, this is actually a pretty neat story. Not about the cat cuteness mind you, although I do like cats. Animals perceiving things like earthquakes is well documented. But death? I know they certainly perceive their own death. My tabby of almost 21 years chose (?) to pass away the night before I was going to have her put down due to constant heart attacks, trouble breathing etc. We all know they have senses that far exceed our own, but how does this fit with their relationship with humans? I'm not sure I buy into the "pets who love you" scenario. They are animals of very little brain who get food and comfort and respond according to their nature. So where does the "sitting with the dead" come in? Therein lies the true discussion.
posted by elendil71 at 3:36 PM on July 25, 2007


I don't buy the 'very little brain' scenario. They aren't geniuses, but they aren't shtoopit either. Underestimating animal consciousness is a human trait.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 3:43 PM on July 25, 2007


Well, there is the vet's explanation:
Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioural clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa's article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it's also possible his behaviour could be driven by self-centred pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.


Self-centered behaviour does seem the most likely explanation.

That, or this cat is a nurse's familiar.
posted by Salmonberry at 3:45 PM on July 25, 2007


Is it okay that I am too ashamed of myself right now to favorite any of you?
*finally stops laughing, goes back to reading Harry Potter*
posted by metasav at 3:47 PM on July 25, 2007


elendil - that's why I originally posted this. I wanted to read that discussion. And, whether or not people would be appreciate or freaked out by a death-aware cat near their hospitalized loved one(s).

But I really couldn't pass up the chance to join in the LOLCAT fun. I loves me some LOLCATS.
posted by revmitcz at 3:48 PM on July 25, 2007


WEN UZ DIE,
I CAN HAS PUREED CHEEZBURGER?
posted by Ogre Lawless at 3:50 PM on July 25, 2007


You know what? I think I get the crazy cat lady phenomenon, now. It's not the ladies who collect the cats, and the cats don't stay there for love, companionship or food or anything of the kind. It's just that those ladies are very hard to kill and it takes hundreds of cats curling up next to them for years to finally get the job done.
posted by shmegegge at 3:51 PM on July 25, 2007 [14 favorites]


Fantastic! I study Thanatology in my spare time, this really is a fantastic story.
posted by goml at 3:52 PM on July 25, 2007


You just know someone is going to punk their buddy at the nursing home by rubbing catnip on their blanket. "Get that cat away from me, I'm not dying! I'm not! I'm not!"
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:54 PM on July 25, 2007


I both love this story, and the LOLCATZ. Do stay on the serious side though...

I thought the question of the cat's motives was really interesting too. And I think the self-centered cat explanation is just facile.

The thing that bothers me when people say, "Your dog doesn't love you, you just feed it" is that it really isn't that hard to pull the same trick on humans. With minimal effort, it's easy to see all human activity as the seeking of food, sex, water, and shelter.

And all that art? Well animals play, don't they? It's just working out? Maybe art is just like dreaming, some mechanism to assuage cognitive... blah blah blah.

I don't think that animals have deeply complex lives, but I don't think humans are divine either. Sometimes, in our mundane day to day lives, things happen which sort of make a mark... everything synchs up, aesthetically, sublime. I think the same thing can happen to animals. I've sat on a beach with my dog, as he peacefully smells the ocean air, and absorbs the sun. I don't think he's too stupid to do anything else. I think he's really enjoying himself.

As for this cat, it's probably true that it doesn't have the same existential grasp of death that we higher beings do, at the same time, I do imagine that his has some sense of living things, and of non-living things, and of living things just... stopping. Maybe, for a brief second in it's glorious feline life it reflected on that, and has since developed the habit of marking its passage.

But that's just me.
posted by Alex404 at 3:56 PM on July 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


In other news, strange sounds were heard coming from Rod Serling's grave today. Witnesses at the scene claim they heard a voice from the vicinity of the grave that seemed to be yelling, "I fucking called it, bitches!"
posted by shmegegge at 3:56 PM on July 25, 2007


I don't think it has anything to do with heated blankets. As the article said, the cat often knows way before the caregivers do, and it would seem logical that the much larger number of patients *not* dying in the next couple of hours would also have warm blankets the cat could cuddle into.

Many animals - especially the species we've spent so much time domesticating - are quite capable of responding to non-verbal human signals that humans themselves don't pick up on.

How many of you have had a pet come to you when you were feeling badly, unbeckoned? I know it's happened to me, my friends, and uncountable others.

Don't rule out the perceptions of other creatures being more than adequate to accomplish feats we find puzzling and incredible.

If a dog can smell a person from five miles away, I'm more than willing to believe a cat can parse signals indicating someone's about to die.
posted by batmonkey at 4:00 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Aren't there dogs who can smell cancer in humans, and who can predict seizures in people? Weird and cool.
posted by tristeza at 4:03 PM on July 25, 2007



Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don't know he's there, so patients aren't aware he's a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.


isn't there a horror movie about this? this soul, it is MINE! mreeeooowwww!
posted by geos at 4:09 PM on July 25, 2007


O HAI. I FOUNDED MOR SOYLENT GRIEN.
posted by LionIndex at 4:13 PM on July 25, 2007


No one tell Michael Moore about this.
posted by william_boot at 4:18 PM on July 25, 2007


Everybody here talking about the cat seeking the patients for self-centered reasons, or the cat picking up on non-verbal cues ... gold star.

Everyone here that might think the cat is doing this because it "feels sorry" for the patients or has some kind of super-cat empathic abilities ... dunce corner.

Never forget ... this is a domesticated animal, the result of literally thousands of years of selective breeding. It's behaving this way because we humans bred it to behave this way and reward it when it behaves this way. Cats that "display love" were petted, fed and given cozy places to sleep. All the others were figuratively (and sometimes literally) tossed into the river in a sack.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:22 PM on July 25, 2007


CEILING CAT IS WATCHING YOU DIE!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:23 PM on July 25, 2007 [7 favorites]


Felix is the prissy one, so that makes Oscar the messy deadly one, right?

O HAI. I'M HERE 4 ... UR JELO.
posted by rob511 at 4:29 PM on July 25, 2007


Cool Papa Bell:
Ability to pick up on empathic cues is not ruled out in my case for domesticated animals having tools we don't in perceiving this sort of thing.

Emotional responses and otherwise invisible changes in physical states have effects on human electrical fields. And, for all we know, what we label as "empathic" may simply be higher functionality in perceiving and processing those signals.
posted by batmonkey at 4:33 PM on July 25, 2007


It's behaving this way because we humans bred it to behave this way and reward it when it behaves this way. Cats that "display love" were petted, fed and given cozy places to sleep.

Cats that didn't actually attack us weren't thrown in the river...but the 'display love' thing certainly doesn't apply to all cats, including this one, which the article says is stand-offish. Many people keep cats that aren't affectionate at all. Cats were bred to hunt small rodents as much as anything else.

Animals sensing things that humans can't isn't the result of human breeding (see Birds which freak when hurricane is approaching but before it is evident to humans). I imagine being able to pick up the cues of another dying animal serves cats and other creatures much better in the wild than when they're domesticated - for scavenging purposes, keep-away-from-disease purposes, etc.
posted by frobozz at 4:41 PM on July 25, 2007


I still vote for nurse's familiar.

BURN THE WITCH!
posted by Salmonberry at 4:46 PM on July 25, 2007


all you guys can think to do is make catty comments.

Don't be such a pussy.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:00 PM on July 25, 2007


From my mate, who upon reading this remarked:
Only the internet can take a truth that is strange, frightening, and touching and add captions to also make it funny.
posted by sien at 5:02 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Couple of things. New genetic research is suggesting that cats don't really qualify as "domesticated," like a dog or a cow.

elendil: We all know they have senses that far exceed our own...

We all know nothing of the sort. I suppose if you mean the ability to see in the dark or something then I'll grant this - but as to your common house cat possessing any psychic powers or something I call hogwash.

Recently, I was reading an article (can't rightly remember where) that explained that perhaps insanity or insane behavior in humans isn't the result of seeing things that aren't there - but rather is a result of failing to filter out things that are nonessential. Basically, crazy people's minds observe and process too much information, whereas a healthy person would assemble the signal from the noise.

I posit that cats are basically like crazy people. Human beings give off all kinds of non-verbal cues that they're about to die - however, sane humans filter them out. But cats don't. AND cats know that whoever is closest to the captain's chair when the captain dies gets to be the next captain. And this Oscar - he's no dummy - he's sees pretty nurses bringing heaping place of delicious food to these folks who get to lie in a warm bed all day. Oscar sees the things we filter out (because he's insane - all cats are) and he wants to be next in line for their bed. That's why he's frustrated when they put him outside the room.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:08 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


frobozz: Cat's weren't bred to do anything. Small wildcats showed up when the mice did - as soon as we started storing up grain in barns - and early man didn't chase them away.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:09 PM on July 25, 2007


Ooops, forgot his lolcaption:
I AM IN UR DEATHBED...

... GIVING YOU COMFORT IN UR TIME OF PASSING.
posted by sien at 5:10 PM on July 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


I love this story. There are signs that most hospice workers / family and other people that are around end of life care notice about people that are about the die: extremities get cooler to touch as blood shunts to interior organs (the floppy lower part of an earlobe might suck inward touching the side of the head), peripheral pulses may disappear on the feet and sometimes on the wrists, breathing becomes slower with occasional gasps, and with long spaces between breaths, secretions become greater and it sounds like gurgling as they breath, to name a few.

It seems completely plausible to me that an animal, with a different sense of smell, sight, perspective would notice other things (maybe we don't know if it's greater - but it is certainly different in that it is that of a cat and not human). This cat grew up around a dementia unit. Perhaps it has adopted a cat version of the work ethic of it's human friends and is actively trying to contribute to the care. Not that my cat is anything like this one - but she's adopted the life of laying about that she observes her humans doing when we are home.

Hospice care has such a lovely accepting approach to death. It's not avoided, or a threat, or evil. What a lovely comfort this cat must be to some in that hospital - the staff, the patient, and the family - as they recognize death's place in life.
posted by dog food sugar at 5:11 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Digging about on this subject, I find it somewhat disappointing that most searches turn up AMAZING PSYCHIC ANIMALS SIXTH SENSE junk. There are references to experts who would like to study certain animals to see how they predict things like storms - can they sense changes in air pressure? Sounds out of our range? but I don't know enough about it to find the results of such studies, if they're in existence. I found another article for the death-sensing cat, which suggests a combination of sense of smell (chemicals which are released/cease to be released?) and very subtle changes of behavior on the part of the patient (like less movement).
posted by frobozz at 5:13 PM on July 25, 2007


There's something he's perceiving that humans can't. I suspect it's a smell or a sound. The event where he detected imminent death the first time probably had some (inadvertent) reward in the aftermath, and he thus learned to repeat the behavior to obtain the reward.
posted by mullingitover at 5:13 PM on July 25, 2007


And, for all we know, what we label as "empathic" may simply be higher functionality in perceiving and processing those signals.

Well, the cat is processing signals, not emotions. There's a difference. The signals may be associated with emotions, but the cat doesn't make that leap to understand and process the signals the same way you and I do. That way lies anthropomorphism.

I imagine being able to pick up the cues of another dying animal serves cats and other creatures much better in the wild

Yes, but again, don't make the jump that the cat's behavior is indicative of "feelings" in the same way you and I consider them. The cat may sense illness and think, "If I stick around for his animal to die, I may be first in line to eat this animal."

the article says is stand-offish

The fact that the article says the cat is "stand-offish" and the fact that you accept that a cat is "stand-offish" when it doesn't display a certain behavior you or anyone else wants it to display at a certain point in time ... is again anthropomorphism in action.

You can say, "Oh look, the cat is stand-offish."

And for all we know, inside the cat's head, it's just "not food ... look for food ... not food ... look for food ... smell food ... smell not emanating from this area ... must locate source of food smell ... "
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:16 PM on July 25, 2007


frobozz: Cat's weren't bred to do anything.

They've certainly been bred to look a certain way...my point was that early cats weren't chased away or kept around based on the cuddliness, but on their usefulness. "Breed" was the wrong word in that instance though.
posted by frobozz at 5:17 PM on July 25, 2007


Yes, but again, don't make the jump that the cat's behavior is indicative of "feelings" in the same way you and I consider them.

When on earth did I make that jump? That has nothing to do with what I said.

And for all we know, inside the cat's head, it's just "not food ... look for food ... not food ... look for food ... smell food ... smell not emanating from this area ... must locate source of food smell ... "

Well, yes, I imagine so. I didn't say "the cat is condescending" or "the cat feels contempt for people." That would be anthropomorphizing. "Stand-offish" simply describes the cat's outward behavior, and contrasts it with cats which "display love" (your words).
posted by frobozz at 5:26 PM on July 25, 2007


i lol'd.
posted by knowles at 5:27 PM on July 25, 2007


Nice post, thanks!

The signals may be associated with emotions, but the cat doesn't make that leap to understand and process the signals the same way you and I do. That way lies anthropomorphism.

And so you think the safest tack is assuming that cats can't possibly have anything in common with humans? That way lies Descartes vivisecting cats and chuckling at the saps who cringed in horror at their dying yowls: "Silly persons! The cat does not feel as you and I, those sounds are purely mechanical!" I prefer to err on the side of anthropomorphism, thanks. But enjoy your Spock-like sense of superiority.
posted by languagehat at 5:28 PM on July 25, 2007 [5 favorites]


Cats evolved stalking prey, and probably spent a lot of time with their combined senses trying to select the weakest prey to attack, because if they randomly chose it, they would probaly starve. It shouldn't then surprize us that they understand death, we simply don't analyze prey in order to compare the experience, and we often assume that hunting is easy for cats. Which is probably why cats are so strange to begin with. They probably see us as giant slabs of food insurance, enough meat to last a year, while we cuddle and hug them. No shit they purr.
posted by Brian B. at 5:30 PM on July 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


And so you think the safest tack is assuming that cats can't possibly have anything in common with humans?

I didn't say they had nothing in common. Just that it's silly to attribute an abstract human emotion and motivation such as "comfort the dying out of recognition that we are all fated to die on this cruel, cruel planet" to a housecat that probably RUNS WHEN YOU START AN ELECTRIC CAN OPENER.

But thank you, LANGUAGEhat, for twisting words and setting up such an obvious strawman.

Dude, I thought you were better than that. Apparently you are not the community leader I thought you were. I live and learn.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:35 PM on July 25, 2007


Offered only as anecdotal information: When my mother became too infirm to live alone, my four or five year old randombred (but mostly siamese) cat and I moved in with her. Fugax is a one-woman cat, and not generally inclined to accept any more affection from others than is necessary to be polite. Even with people who are frequently around and are social with him, generally he'll greet them with a sniff-over, then dematerialise until they've gone. He sleeps on my bed, or the chair in my room, and with two brief exceptions, he has always been an only cat.
During this time, my grandmother went into a nursing home, and we took her old cat, Orca, in.
These two beasts despised each other, to the extent that if one was in the house, the other had to be out.
Late one afternoon, Orca tried to contest an SUV for a sunny bit of pavement. Unable to bury her immediately, I put her in a box on the top basement step, intending to do the job the next morning.
It wasn't long before we realized that Fu had disappeared. I found him lying next to her, IN the box (though it was cramped, and my old boy likes his comfort), licking her head sporadically as he dozed, much like he licks my hand when I'm reading, like it's his job to make sure I know he's there on duty. He stayed there the whole night, until it was time to bury her, then he went on about his business, evincing no further signs of distress.
Now, the whole time we lived with her, Fu barely recognized my Mom's presence, despite her frequent overtures; it was a family joke, how he reduced her to non-personhood! Six months after the Orca episode, however, he forsook my bed for Mom's. She died within two weeks.
posted by cookie-k at 5:36 PM on July 25, 2007 [11 favorites]


We seem to be getting into this subject, so: a couple of years ago I read a book (probably by either Gould or Sagan) which looked at the way the 'layers' of the human mind evolved, and from that suggested that non-human animal's waking states (at least among the higher mammals) may be a lot like human dream states - not a lot of self-questioning, etc. I can't remember what book it was now (it's in my apartment somewhere, but good lord, so are 500 other books); anyone have any idea?

On preview:

"comfort the dying out of recognition that we are all fated to die on this cruel, cruel planet"


Nobody said that at all. I don't understand who you're arguing with. If it's things like this:
How many of you have had a pet come to you when you were feeling badly, unbeckoned? I know it's happened to me, my friends, and uncountable others.

you may be better off trying to refute the actual point, rather than a gross exaggeration of it.
posted by frobozz at 5:44 PM on July 25, 2007


Or maybe our souls are absorbed into cats when we die. Sort of like the sauce on a toffee pudding.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:47 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


We seem to be getting into this subject, so: a couple of years ago I read a book (probably by either Gould or Sagan) which looked at the way the 'layers' of the human mind evolved, and from that suggested that non-human animal's waking states (at least among the higher mammals) may be a lot like human dream states - not a lot of self-questioning, etc. I can't remember what book it was now (it's in my apartment somewhere, but good lord, so are 500 other books); anyone have any idea?

Could it have been "The Dragons of Eden" By Carl Sagan?
posted by longsleeves at 6:18 PM on July 25, 2007


Cool Papa Bell, I hope I am not making too much of a leap in assuming you are capable of loving, yet you are an animal, are you not?

An animal, in fact, with many, many anatomical and genetic points of near identity with cats, and a brain organized along extremely similar lines to that of cats. I do not know of any feature of human brains that has no correspondence to something in cats' brains (although they may well exist; I would be happy to be apprised of anything you have along such lines).

Given all these similarities, I would say the burden of showing cats are not capable of loving humans is a very heavy one for any person who at least agrees that humans can love cats, and that no one anywhere has even begun to meet that burden. (The argument you allude to, for example, that loving is an abstract concept, would exclude all human babies from that capacity.)

Until someone does, I think asserting that cats cannot love us is a triumph of faith-- or prejudice-- over reason, experience, and common sense.
posted by jamjam at 6:48 PM on July 25, 2007


CPB: Cats that "display love" were petted, fed and given cozy places to sleep.

You're not following this to it's conclusion: the simplest way to "display love" is to experience it. Cats are not complex emotional creatures to be sure, but to deny simplified emotional responses requires a very sophisticated alternative theory of mind. I prefer to choose the simpler explanation that fits the observables.

Emotions are preset responses to stimuli, if you like. In this case, the cat is probably sensing a certain set of stimuli that brings out it's "caring" emotion, probably not far from that used by mother cats for kits. Sure, that may have been reinforced by breeding. Humans have spent hundreds of cat generations selecting for cats that aren't scared of humans and that associate us with pleasure and family.

Cats don't have a lot of ingrained emotional responses, or social instincts, I'll give you that. They certainly have behaviour patterns that indicate bonding and person preference, however. The simplest answer to me, is that implies that cats do feel that emotion. To try to explain their affectionate behaviour using the goal seeking rules you propose is overly complex, and thus unconvincing.
posted by bonehead at 7:05 PM on July 25, 2007


Cool Papa Bell:

You may think it's silly to think that animals are capable of experiencing (at least to a degree) some of the emotions that humans do, but you haven't given any reasons.

Obviously some who have posted are inclined to disagree, claiming that some animals do have emotions, and can experience emotional connections.

So, can you convince me why I should think about it your way?
posted by Alex404 at 7:06 PM on July 25, 2007


Wait, cats, dementia ward...no mention of Toxoplasmosis? And the parasites have you all debating the cat's sentience. Fools.
posted by kigpig at 7:16 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Longsleeves, that's it exactly. Thank you. I was afraid it was hidden in a book of essays and I would be unable to ever find it again...

Here's the passage I was thinking of:

I wonder...if the waking state of other mammals is very much like the dream state of humans - where we can recognize signs, such as the feeling of running water and the smell of honeysuckle, but have an extremely limited repertoire of symbols such as words; where we encounter vivid sensory and emotional images and active intuitive understanding, but very little rational analysis...

...because (he posits) in human sleep the neocortex, the last part of our brain to evolve, is 'switched off' and the 'early' animalistic brain is active instead (although I believe all mammals have neocortexes). I wonder if this theory is accurate at all; it would be fascinating to think when we dream we're sort of reverting to an earlier state of being, mentally. (Interestingly, this book has a simple diagram showing the differences in the brains of cats and monkeys...)


Given all these similarities, I would say the burden of showing cats are not capable of loving humans is a very heavy one for any person who at least agrees that humans can love cats


I like the idea of giving any animal or thing a sort of Turing test to determine how to behave towards it...if a creature's behavior is such that there can be any doubt as to whether it is not conscious/ able to feel pain/ has emotions/ etc., we are morally responsible to act as if it does, since the consequences of making a mistake on that point if it does have those qualities could be reprehensible. (And I think Mr. Spock would agree with me, thankyouverymuch.) I'm inclined to think that all the more complex mammals feel some sort of emotion (although not necessarily that non-human emotions would be close enough to our experience that we would be able to recognize them if we felt them ourselves.) But as long as my own cat or dog behaves as if it's more than an automaton, that's certainly enough for me to behave towards it in kind.
posted by frobozz at 7:17 PM on July 25, 2007


Cats aren't domesticated in the strictest sense; if you have a tabby, you're looking at the "wild" version. (Obviously there are a lot of varieties of selectively bred mutants, but the basic cat is pretty much how it walked into the mud hut thousands of years ago.)

So, our two cats essentially sleep next to me, since I don't move when I sleep, as opposed to my bride, "Thrasher Maxwelton". I wonder if they're just terrible prognosticators, or whether they're just building up for a really dramatic finale?
posted by maxwelton at 7:17 PM on July 25, 2007


This does not seem unreasonable to me. Most sick people have a smell to them that even I, with a "not so hot by animal kingdom but better than most humans" can recognize pretty quickly, the same with, ah, menstruation (we had an amusing thread on that previously). It seems entirely possible that cats can sense impending death, or at least strong shifts in health status, merely by scent alone. We know that a lot of predators routinely depend on their ability to classify the health of other animals.

Cats are also not as ruthlessly self-absorbed as one might think. Recent studies have shown that cats will sometimes tend to pregnant cats who are particularly gravid. As a child, I had one standoffish cat who would ignore me when I laid in bed, no matter how quiet, but if I were ill, would generally stand guard. I've seen them exhibit emotional distress when other cats have taken ill. Their social nature isn't quite as obvious as that of dogs, but it's there.

I wouldn't say that this cat has anything so complex as a motive to ease the passing of the dying, but there might well be a triggering of some fairly simple actions that interact in a manner that gives apparent depth. An emergent behavior, if you will.
posted by adipocere at 7:41 PM on July 25, 2007


I have a cat named Oscar, he likes to sleep on my chest. So far he appears to be unable to predict my death. His super-cat power is the knowledge of exactly where to lay in the kitchen to be in the way the most while I am trying to cook. He only does this until he is fed, yet I often marvel at the thousands of years of selection that took place to give him this amazing ability.
posted by peeedro at 7:41 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


O BAI!
posted by Ceiling Cat at 7:49 PM on July 25, 2007 [3 favorites]


I have heard anecdotes wherein cats will sense their own impending deaths and go off by themselves to die in peace. My cat Adam the Tailed Manx seems to have done so. He didn't comI'd heard it said that cats have to be taught to hunt by their mothers or they will lose the art. Then we got a cat named Adam who was rejected by a Manx cattery because he had a tail.

That kitteh had spent the first year of his life indoors and the first time he ventured out he appeared to frightened of the sky. He hugged the wall of the porch.

Six months later he was killing and eating pheasants. (and mice, robins, jays, wittle baby bunnies, frogs, moles......)

Once I found the head of a rabbit perched upright in the middle of the deck, pondering infinity.

Adam left home one day from my parents' house near the tidal marsh adjoining their Massachusetts' South Shore home. He had moved with us from Ohio. He was 17 and he did not come home.

I found a cat skull two years later on the verge where the heather salt marsh verges the salt grass near the South River at the end of the street of cottages. (tidal and brackish). True story.
posted by longsleeves at 7:54 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Doesn't anybody get it? It knows who's dying because the CAT SCANS.
Why do I have to be the one to explain these things?
posted by wendell at 8:02 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Death cat for cutie!
posted by operating thetan at 9:09 PM on July 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


Cool Papa Bell protested:
"I didn't say they had nothing in common. Just that it's silly to attribute an abstract human emotion and motivation such as "comfort the dying out of recognition that we are all fated to die on this cruel, cruel planet" to a housecat that probably RUNS WHEN YOU START AN ELECTRIC CAN OPENER."

But you were saying that in reply to comments wherein no such attribution had been made.

Hence, I suspect, the subsequent flurry of targeted replies.

------------
The "cat scans" and "death cat for cutie" comments were a timely addition, wendell and operating thetan.
posted by batmonkey at 9:55 PM on July 25, 2007


You know, there's a real problem with anthropomorphizing the behavior of animals; there's often more than one possible explanation. For instance, in this case, we have a standoffish cat that only curls up next to people who are near death. And everyone says, "oh, how cuuuute, that's so nice."

Folks. Wake up. This cat hates people and likes to watch them die.
posted by Malor at 10:05 PM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


It'll prolly be reported in an unnoticed follow-up:
VENGEFUL SENIORS VIDEOTAPED RUBBING CATNIP ON HOSPICE RIVALS ... (more inside)
posted by rob511 at 10:53 PM on July 25, 2007


adipocere said: Cats are also not as ruthlessly self-absorbed as one might think.

Totally agree. One of my cats (rescued ~ and hand-raised, ironically ~ as a kitten from a mother who rejected her) is extremely stand-offish (will swat and fuss if she is petted), but whenever I'm not feeling well, she will curl up next to me (she won't ever let herself be cuddled, but she'll be near enough to express an "I'm here" gesture)... I think cats, and dogs, and pets in general, have much greater powers of perception than we give them credit for.
posted by amyms at 11:40 PM on July 25, 2007


A co-worker waited all day to show this to me. While others were cooing over the story's sweetness, my thoughts were that I hoped this would be on Meatfilter when I got home, because it would be fodder for some wicked LOLCAT comments. So glad to not be disappointed.
posted by the_royal_we at 1:30 AM on July 26, 2007


Baby Balrog speaks the truth. 100,000 years is a mighty long time though!
posted by asok at 3:44 AM on July 26, 2007


Fascinating story. And, sadly, my very first thought was "what kind of LOLcat comment can I make about this?"
posted by The Deej at 5:01 AM on July 26, 2007


I bet the nurses don't like when he hangs around their station.

And I bet the chemical shit that happens after you die is already starting before you die -- your systems are failing and you're already decomposing before you're quite gone -- and animals can smell it on your breath and in your sweat and learn to recognize it. This particular cat has lived around dying people long enough to learn what it means and, for some reason, he likes to be around it. (Lots of excitement? Lots of attention from people converging on the dead patient? Hoping someone will leave a bit for him?)
posted by pracowity at 6:23 AM on July 26, 2007


Nobody here ever had a cat that would come lay down with whoever was sad in the family? You ever dose on hallucinogenics around a cat?

They know whats up, that's all I'm saying.

Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care."

Oh come on now, how can you snark at that? :(
posted by prostyle at 6:28 AM on July 26, 2007


Today's Boston Globe has an article and photo gallery about Oscar.
posted by ericb at 7:44 AM on July 26, 2007


The cat with 25 lives...

ON ITS CONSCIENCE

(c) one of my colleagues
posted by randomination at 8:16 AM on July 26, 2007


Today's Boston Globe has an article and photo gallery about Oscar.

whoa, my dad wrote that (awful) headline. crazy.
posted by revfitz at 8:20 AM on July 26, 2007


Oscar's only 2, 25 deaths predicted thus far. That's 125 in cat math.

Did Animals Sense Tsunami? Oscar as a cat.
posted by nickyskye at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2007


Well, it makes sense to me. If a dog can sense a seizure, then this wouldn't necessarily be so much less believable, yeah?
posted by miss lynnster at 10:29 AM on July 26, 2007


Baby_Balrog said:
And this Oscar - he's no dummy - he's sees pretty nurses bringing heaping place of delicious food to these folks who get to lie in a warm bed all day. Oscar sees the things we filter out (because he's insane - all cats are) and he wants to be next in line for their bed. That's why he's frustrated when they put him outside the room.

But then why doesn't he stick around to hog the bed? He quietly leaves minutes after the person dies—there's no mention of him waiting around for the nurses to take the body away or him staying on the bed. He leaves immediately after death.

Cool Papa Bell said:
The cat may sense illness and think, "If I stick around for his animal to die, I may be first in line to eat this animal."

But then why doesn't he ever try to eat the dead body? As I said before, all articles on Oscar's behavior describe him leaving the room almost as soon as the person is dead. Again, this explanation contradicts the evidence.

And the aforementioned electric blanket explanation makes no sense when you read this paragraph:
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. (From here)
If he was seeking warmth and comfort, why would he wrap his body around someone's ice-cold leg?

Some years back, I went with my mother to the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, a place that provided a home for abused and mistreated farm animals. There, founder Kathy Stevens introduced us to an extraordinary ram named Rambo (of course). He was severely abused at his old farm, and when he first came to CAS, he was so freaked out he threw one of the volunteers across the barn.

That was a few years before my mom and I came to visit. Since then, his behavior has changed considerably. Whenever a new animal is brought in, invariably feeling frightened and confused, Rambo spends all his time in that animal's pen, sleeping with it and helping it eat if necessary, until the animal feels more comfortable in its new home. Rambo then moves back into his own pen until the next new animal comes onto the farm. He's also been known to get the volunteers' attention whenever another animal's in trouble.

While most people assume that animals have no emotions or memories and will accuse me of anthropomorphizing, I can't escape the conclusion that Rambo remembers his own difficult transition and has devoted the rest of his life to helping other animals find their way through their own. The thing is, if you're looking for a simple, self-serving explanation... why would he hang out in another animal's pen until they feel better and then leave? You can't say he's after the warmth, because then he'd stay with the biggest, warmest animal in there year-round. Instead, it's always the new animal and he always moves back into his own pen, alone, after a while. What's in it for him?

If a ram can do all that, I see no reason why a cat shouldn't be able to. My cat, Buster, died recently: he ran outside (despite having felt too sick to go outside for weeks) and never came back. He knew he was going to die, so he found a nice place to do so. And this is something that pet owners frequently describe their pets doing. If so many cats and dogs can grasp that their own deaths are approaching, why not others'?

Anyway, I'm too touched with this story to make an LOLCAT snark. So to make it up to you, here's a Harry Potter-themed LOLCAT snark: I HAS A DEHFSTIK
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 11:48 AM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Cats are pretty self-interested and I think they're certainly much less altruistic than dogs. Even so, my cat can tell when I'm very upset. Probably she gets upset, too, just because she's so in-tune with me. Still, she's not oblivious to my emotional state.

The people that argue that our artificial selection of dogs and cats to "appear" friendly and care about us means that they are "faking it" and only are self-interested are, I think, both ignorant and annoyingly anthropocentric. Our feelings of caring and love aren't so damn special, they're evolved behaviors, too. When we artificially select our pets for these traits, what we're selecting for are those same instincts that we have as applied to us. So with dogs what we're selecting for is the pack love for each other and loyalty and care for the pack leader. With cats, we're selecting for the love that kittens have for their mother. These animals are feeling these things as applied to us because we've selected for animals that will do so. It's not "fake".

It's not exactly what we feel. And there's ultimately self-interest behind. But then, that's true for people, too. The love we have for our children is self-interest in evolutionary terms for our genes. That doesn't mean that, psychologically, it isn't actually altruistic. This obsession for "what things really are" is some weird holdover from a Platonic Idealism. Sure, if you're a theist or hold to some metaphysics, than it's justifiable and makes sense in that context. But to try to use science, especially evolution, to justify applying some idealist argument is just crazy. If, by evolutionary terms, animals don't feel love, then neither do humans. Both are "fake" from that perspective. The problem of that perspective, though, is that it denies our actual experience of ourselves. Even if it's "fake" in this sense, it's still what it is and it's as "real" as it's ever going to be. When I love my family, that's real, even if there's some selfish gene way back there behind it.

Well, such biological imperatives are, in fact, more to the forefront with our pets. Even so, that doesn't mean that they are robots without feelings. And I don't doubt for a minute that the feelings we have of "love" have their basis in certain affiliations that are important for survival and that this is true for any other animal besides humans that display such affiliations. Kittens love their mothers. We are their mothers. They love us. Is it exactly like the love we have for other humans, or even like the love we have for our pets? Of course it isn't. But it's not entirely unlike it, either. It is what it is, and it's as real as anything else.

That said, I don't see any reason why a cat would care about the imminent death of random people in a rest home, even if it's pretty familiar with them. If it's aware of it, it's probably aware of it as a predator. Or there's a more mundane explanation.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 11:50 AM on July 26, 2007


As a final addition to this story, I caught a radio interview this morning with an administrator from the care facility in question. She reported that the nurses in this facility perform a lot of special, additional activity for patients when they think death is imminent.

She said these activities include ... wait for it ... aromatherapy.

In other words, the cat is being attracted to the smell of the aromatherapy, and that's being done for people the nurses already think are dying and ... oh look, the cat is here!

In other words, this is confirmation bias.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:22 PM on July 26, 2007


Cool Papa Bell, I read the NEJM article here and in it, there was a reference to Oscar first going into a specific room where the patient was in the terminal stages - i.e. the nurses thought death was coming soon - and so likely had the aromatherapy in it as well - it might be that the aromatherapy signals the cat which rooms to check out, but another one of the newspaper articles has a quote from a staff member who says "the cat makes very few mistakes".

According to the Knight Science Journalism tracker:
"Well, maybe there’s a simple explanation, like anoxia-linked metabolites or other scents that allow a Rhode Island nursing home cat to sense who is next. The cat curls up with uncanny accuracy, they all here say, on the beds of patients in their last hours. Families tend, it also says here, to view the phenomenon as a comfort. The story’s a natural. That it’s in a “perspective” communication to the New England Journal just adds an extra green light for reporters who ought to ordinarily treat this with a ton of skepticism"
posted by birdsquared at 7:01 PM on July 26, 2007


I'm glad I can see the wonder in this story without having to tear it to bits. It is rather amazing.

My very active young siamese recently stayed by my side--on my bed or pacing me each time I got up after I recovered from surgery. He only left to eat and go to the litterbox. FHe immediately returned. My 17 year oldlady cat tottered her way up the stairs and did the same. For over two weeks. I was in tremendous pain and very sad and there isn't a person alive who can tell me that they didn't know I needed comfort.

I'm forced to wonder why some people seem to need to seperate us from animals. Why? It seems almost defensive. I've met far kinder cats than people. Why not be a part of the circle, why the need to stand above, apart?
posted by pywacket at 9:32 PM on July 26, 2007


here is the link i was trying for. No fancy stuff.
posted by the_royal_we at 2:07 AM on July 27, 2007


In other words, the cat is being attracted to the smell of the aromatherapy...

How many cats do you own that are attracted to aromatic oils? Every cat I've known has hated oils, incense, and generally any object that heats up and disperses dense vapors throughout the room.

Anyway, the aromatherapy bit was in one of the articles so it's not like that was some trump card you picked up on the radio interview that automatically validates itself as the sole source of the felines attraction.

There are a lot of stupid things that I hate to see people believe in, but a cat who comforts the dying is nowhere on that list.
posted by prostyle at 7:31 AM on July 27, 2007


Didn't it say that Oscar was more accurate than the staff? As in, he's right even when they're wrong with the aromatherapy? Also, don't they start aromatherapy quite some time before the person dies--while Oscar is apparently much more accurate.

"Well, maybe there’s a simple explanation, like anoxia-linked metabolites or other scents that allow a Rhode Island nursing home cat to sense who is next. ... just adds an extra green light for reporters who ought to ordinarily treat this with a ton of skepticism"

The ability to "smell death" from anoxia-linked metabolites would make this story less fascinating?
posted by jefgodesky at 12:01 PM on July 27, 2007


Cool Papa Bell: In other words, the cat is being attracted to the smell of the aromatherapy, and that's being done for people the nurses already think are dying and ... oh look, the cat is here!

jefgodesky: Didn't it say that Oscar was more accurate than the staff? As in, he's right even when they're wrong with the aromatherapy? Also, don't they start aromatherapy quite some time before the person dies--while Oscar is apparently much more accurate.

In addition to jefgodesky's point, if Oscar were merely there for the aromatherapy, why would he cuddle up and purr next to the patient in the room? Wouldn't it be sufficient to merely be in the room in order to enjoy the aromatherapy? Several articles have pointed out that this is not an affectionate cat—he will tolerate no more than a scratch on the ear, unless he's around someone who is dying, at which point he will suddenly become very affectionate with that person.

I should note that I'm not arguing that the cat is psychic for knowing who is about to die, merely that he has the empathy to care and want to help them. He probably is smelling something. Probably, all cats (if not other species) can sense death through smell or some other keen sense (or a combination of keen senses). But none of the other cats act this way around dying patients. That's evidence of Oscar's unique personality: he wants to be a hospice nurse like his owners! You'll remember reading that, in addition to cuddling up to the dying, he'll walk the halls as if on duty, checking in on patients with cursory sniffs.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 12:38 PM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]


Two thoughts cross my mind:
(a) the act of the cat snuggling up to the dying person may help them relax, and therefore be more likely to "give in" to their impending mortality, rather than clinging on.
(b) perhaps Terry Pratchett was right - cats can see Death, and therefore know when he's standing in the corner of the room waiting...
posted by Chunder at 3:56 AM on July 29, 2007 [1 favorite]


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