You might have heard about Oscar the cat before. Oscar lives at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and he has a weird skill. He knows who’s going to die. As he wanders the halls of the center, he stops by patients who have the shortest amount of time to live. In the last five years, Oscar has correctly predicted at least 50 deaths. In 2007, Dr. David Dosa wrote a piece for the New England Journal of Medicine about Oscar’s extraordinary power. Three years later he wrote a book called “Making the Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.” And Oscar is still at it. But how is it even possible?
Well, let’s start with the fact that the story of Oscar’s power might not really be true. No one has studied Oscar. No one has kept real records of his predictions and the outcomes. What we have are anecdotes from the doctors who work with and love the cat. And there’s also the question of timing—when Oscar visits and when the patient dies. Does it count as a prediction if Oscar came the day before? Two days before? Does he try to alert anyone to who will die? Or are we humans simply reading into the random wanderings of a cat?
It’s possible that Oscar may simply be responding to nurses and staff activity related to the patient’s condition. For example, patients who are near death are likely to have more activity in their rooms (for the obvious reason that nurses pay extra attention to those in danger of dying than they do to medically stable patients). Oscar may visit those beds more often simply because there’s more going on there, or the patients seem especially unwell.
Plus, the wing Oscar wanders is full of people who are dying all the time. It’s a 41-bed space for patients with advanced dementia. Discovery writes, “If Oscar wanders by enough rooms for long enough, he will likely be in or near rooms with dying patients just by random chance every now and then.”
Of course, Dosa and the doctors don’t believe that this is simply a coincidence. And there is some evidence that animals do better at identifying sick people than random guessing. Discovery points to a 2004 study in which dogs detected bladder cancer. The idea dates back to 1989, when dogs were proposed in a melanoma clinic. Another piece, this time in the Lancet, told the story of several dogs who sniffed at melanomas, smelled lesions through clothing and detected cancers.
But these have some biological explanations. The idea is that cancer cells might emit a unique odor, one that we don’t notice but that dogs can smell. Perhaps death emits an odor too, and that’s what Oscar is smelling. But the hospital is a hard place to smell things. Discovery points out that “there are countless confounding odors in a hospital setting that might mask any animal-detected “death scent,” including flowers, food, cleaning sanitizers, drugs and perfumes.
So patients who see Oscar coming might not actually have to imminently fear for their lives. Chances are, Oscar is simply a cat looking for a quiet place to lay down.
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