Cats, Comfort and Death

Image of Grey and White Oscar the CatSeveral stories illustrating the empathetic nature of cats have been making the media rounds this past week. The story of Oscar, written up in the venerable New England Journal of Medicine and reported by medGadget is one of the most compelling. Oscar, a two-year-old, lives in a nursing home and makes it his business to comfort residents during their last hours of life.

I have a quibble with medGadget’s calling this story “[A] sad case” as well as with most of the media coverage, which has taken a decidedly ghoulish approach to publicizing it (“Is Oscar the Cat a Furry Grim Reaper?”), even when the actual articles prove to be rather less inflammatory. Death is sad, but as the original NEJM article reports

[Oscar’s] mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone.

There’s nothing sad about being being offered the gift of being with a loved one in his or her final moments, and nothing at all wrong with having a soft, living creature to quietly share those moments when we are all most alone.

The idea that an animal might be able to ‘predict’ the death of another is not necessarily outlandish, says Daniel Mills, a veterinary specialist at Lincoln University [UK]:

“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.”

We’ve seen a similar situation in our own GearAbility home. When Whitters, one of our cats, was elderly and fading in her last few days of life, another of our little herd — a cat who had always disliked Whitters enormously — curled up next to her during her final hours. It was an arrangement that clearly was good for both of them, though we don’t claim to understand it any better than those who attempt to explain Oscar’s motivation.

After all, says Jack McCullough, relative of two patients who died at the home with Oscar at their sides,

“What could be more peaceful than a purring cat? And what sound more beautiful to fill one’s ears when leaving life? He brought a special serenity to the room.” (Quoted in the Daily Mail)

Daniel Mills quote also from The Daily Mail (UK)

Thanks to medGadget