“Psychic” Cats – or Not?

 Not too long ago an essay appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine about a cat named Oscar that appears to have an unusual ability.  He lives on the advanced dementia unit of a nursing home in Rhode Island, and he seems to know when one of the residents is about to die, even before the staff members know. 

Hours before a resident dies, Oscar goes to their room and curls up on the bed next to the person, purring and gently nuzzling them. He stays till they die, then he quietly leaves.  The two year-old has presided over 25 deaths in the nursing home since he came to live there as a kitten.  Staff members view his presence at a bedside as “an almost absolute indicator of impending death.”

The essay stimulates a number of questions such as – Can this be true?  Can Oscar really predict an impending death? Can he predict any death or just those in the nursing home? 

Let’s by-pass the basic questions of whether or not Oscar has these abilities and assume that he does.  As animal behaviorists we would want to know – HOW does he do it?  What sensory mechanism or mechanisms are involved and how did Oscar come to possess them? 

As good scientists, we would start with careful observations of Oscar’s behavior – exactly what he does, when and where it occurs.  Armed with these descriptions, we could then generate hypotheses about the mechanisms he uses.  For example, the essay describes Oscar sniffing around the person before settling in with them.  Could Oscar be detecting some odor change in the person that reliably precedes death? 

We might then set up an experiment to test the hypothesis.  We could take clothing from a person who was dying and one who wasn’t and see if Oscar was more inclined to lie next to the dying person’s clothes, or we might try to capture the breath of dying and not dying people and see if he responded differently to these air samples.  Maybe it isn’t the odor but sounds produced by dying people or even the attention that staff and family give to dying people. 

The point is that science gives us a way around the idle speculation of what Oscar is doing and allows us an objective way to identify causes.  Often what we think are psychic abilities in people and animals turn out to be highly developed sensory abilities (like detecting subtle odor cues) but still within the realm of explainable behavior that can be scientifically studied rather than some sort of para-normal event.

See our related article about a person who claimed his horse purposefully saved him from the Australian wildfires. 

If you want to know about your pet's behavior from a scientific viewpoint, we have a wide selection of audio and video programs on our Animal Behavior Associates site.  AND –  what we have to say is –  an impressive array of ON DEMAND online courses on topics from helping cats and dogs get along to assessing aggression. 

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