Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oscar the nursing home cat apparently knows who is about to die. More remarkably, he stays with them as they reach their end. From the story:

A cat with an uncanny ability to detect when nursing home patients are about to die has proven itself in around 50 cases by curling up with them in their final hours, according to a new book. Dr David Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Brown University, said that five years of records showed Oscar rarely erring, sometimes proving medical staff at the New England nursing home wrong in their predictions over which patients were close to death…

The tortoiseshell and white cat spends its days pacing from room to room, rarely spending any time with patients except those with just hours to live. If kept outside the room of a dying patient, Oscar will scratch on the door trying to get in. When nurses once placed the cat on the bed of a patient they thought close to death, Oscar "charged out" and went to sit beside someone in another room. The cat's judgment was better than that of the nurses: the second patient died that evening, while the first lived for two more days. Dr Dosa and other staff are so confident in Oscar's accuracy that they will alert family members when the cat jumps on to a bed and stretches out beside its occupant. "It's not like he dawdles. He'll slip out for two minutes, grab some kibble and then he’s back at the patient's side. It’s like he's literally on a vigil," Dr Dosa wrote.

I have no doubt that animals can smell or otherwise sense impending death. Several years ago, my now late cat went outside to meet his good friend, the kitty next door. Usually, they hung out together happily. That day, he walked up to her in his usual friendly way, but then, suddenly hissed, swiped at her face, and ran back into the house. I was very perplexed. First, he was a very docile cat. And second, he had just turned on his best pal for no apparent reason. Two hours later I went outside and discovered that she had crawled underneath a car and died. That raised an eyebrow, I will tell you. It would appear that my cat had smelled or sensed her impending demise and found whatever it was to be extremely unpleasant.

I bring this up because some might say that Oscar’s wonderful story undercuts human exceptionalism. There is no doubt that Oscar appears to be showing empathy. If so, the reason it might be morally relevant is that empathy is a distinctly human attribute, the lack of which in us is a symptom of mental illness, such as in sociopathology. But that could be because domesticated cats–who run us, we don’t run them–have been changed as a species by their intense and continual contact with us. Not as much as the wolves we turned into dogs, but still changed nonetheless. More to the point, Oscar is remarkable because he is acting in a way that is not inherent in the feline species. Note in the story that the five other cats in the nursing home don’t exhibit the same tendency. Moreover, Oscar is not duty bound to hang with the dying or treat humans or other cats well at all. This is because as an animal, he is not a moral being and cannot have any enforceable moral or ethical duties imposed upon him.

So what we have is a remarkable individual cat. This does not raise the species to the level of moral exceptionalism possessed by all human beings. Indeed, the fact that we might be chagrined that Oscar treats nursing home residents better than a lot of people do tells us that we have a right to expect moral actions from people that we never would from any animal.

1 comment:

  1. Oscar is certainly a mystery. What is his reaction after the patient dies? Perhaps his snuggling is because he detects a temperature drop and is trying to warm the patient? Perhaps he is offering them comfort in the form of warmth?

    He is certainly an exceptional cat - but that doesn't make him human. His presence in that facility is not because it is natural cat habitat; it became his habitat when we invited him in.

    What's the news on the book? I have a Barnes and Noble gift card I'm saving...