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Oscar, the Death-Predicting Cat

Book Review

Joe Nickell

Volume 34.4, July / August 2010

Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. By David Dosa. Hyperion, New York, 2010. ISBN: 978-4013-2323-3. 225 pp. Hardcover, $23.99.

Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician, offers the remarkable notion that a Rhode Island nursing-home cat named Oscar has a predictive ability: knowing when a patient is about to die. Dosa’s book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Or­dinary Cat (2010), is based on an essay by Dosa that appeared in the New En­gland Journal of Medicine (NEJM). It alleged that since staff members adopted him two years before, Oscar has “presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents” (Dosa 2007).

The NEJM piece was an essay and in no sense a scientific article, which raises questions about why it was published. If we expected the book to provide something resembling scientific evidence, we are again disappointed. Dosa seems primarily motivated to produce a sympathetic, insightful account about dementia patients, and there is nothing wrong—indeed, everything right—with that. (As one whose mother had Alzheimer’s, I am, unfortunately, all too familiar with the heartbreaking issues involved, including the toll on family members. Until her death, I used my allotments of vacation time to travel across four states to be with my mother and invariably left the visits with tears streaming down my face.)

Enter Oscar the cat. Few would dispute that pets can provide therapeutic benefits to patients and family members. And there is little harm in ascribing human feelings and motives to the animal: a woman maintaining a vigil for her dying mother said, “[Oscar] was really there for me” (Dosa 2010, 188). (This ascription of human traits or feelings to objects, deities, or, in this case, animals, is known as anthropomorphism.)

However, it is another matter to ascribe magical powers to animals. A patient told Dosa, “Animals have this sixth sense and they can communicate with us if we understand their language.” She claimed her own cat “always knew whenever I was sick or my arthritis was acting up. He would jump on my bed and just sit with me” (21, 22). A woman whose father died said of Oscar, “This beautiful creature was sending us a sign” (149).

Dosa ventures possible explanations for the supposed phenomenon (68):

When you consider it from a scientific point of view it’s easy to shrug off suggestions that a cat can predict death. It’s so much easier to say that he’s just sitting with those patients because of the activity—the gathering of family, the holding of hands, the saying of good-byes. It just makes more sense. Or maybe he just likes to hang out with dying people because they don’t bother him. Most cats sleep two thirds of the day anyway, so chances are a cat is going to be found on a warm bed somewhere.

Again, Dosa observes (217–218):

As cells die, carbohydrates are de­graded into many oxygenated compounds, including various types of ketones—chemical mixtures known for their fragrant aroma.... Could it be that Oscar simply smells an elevated level of a chemical compound released prior to death? It is certainly clear that animals have a refined sense of smell that goes well beyond that of the ordinary human.

However, he adds, “I like to think of Oscar as more than a ketone early-warning system.”

Here we should note the cautionary principle known as Hyman’s Categorical Imperative (after distinguished skeptic Ray Hyman [Alcock 1994, 89]): “Do not try to explain something until you are sure there is something to be explained.” In the case of Oscar, the prescient cat, that certainty is far from having been established, as we shall see.

Dosa’s thinking about Oscar was influenced by a nurse named Mary: “Nothing happens on the unit,” he says, “without her knowing about it. Even her supervisors have been known to defer to her” (3). She possesses “intuition” and “always seems to know who actually needs the most attention” (6)—a quality projected onto Oscar. Throughout the book Mary declares her belief that “Oscar only spends time with patients who are about to die” (8), although some family members believe Oscar is there not for the dying but for the living. “I think he was there for me,” one said. “In fact, I’m sure of it” (182).

Mary admits she also would “like to think” that there is something more to Oscar’s alleged ability than, say, smell (64). Dosa reports that she “hated my I’m a scientist talk” (68) and that she concedes, “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool animal lover. It’s not like I’m objective” (190). Yet Dosa singles her out in his acknowledgments, saying that it was she “who helped me collect many of the stories that appear in this book” (224).

Dosa’s use of the word stories is instructive. His evidence is the kind disparaged in science as anecdotal. That is, it is based on personal narratives that may be affected by mistaken perceptions, faulty memory, folkloric influences, and many other faults.

Hearsay may creep in (as it has done regarding Oscar [e.g., 213]). Biased selection is a very real problem: there is a natural tendency for believers in some phenomenon to collect stories supporting it, just as there is for disbelievers to collect stories discrediting it. In 225 pages of text (relating some sixteen of Oscar’s supposed successes), Dosa fails to mention a single instance of Oscar failing to predict death correctly; yet in a beginning note he begs readers to “forgive the occasional mistakes” the cat “makes from time to time.”

Oscar’s purported ability was first noted when he was just a kitten and jumped onto the bed of a patient who died later that day. But Oscar often came and went (and was generally characterized as going “in and out” of patients’ rooms [181, 182]). Never-the­less, once people began “talking about Oscar,” staff began collecting—even manipulating—the evidence. In at least one instance, the kitten was actually placed in the bed of a dying man (67). (Reportedly, Oscar ran away, only to return a day and a half later when the man really died.) One wonders, was Oscar placed or coaxed into rooms of other dying patients?

Moreover, Dosa admits that “for narrative purposes” he has “made some changes that depart from actual events” and that “some of the characters that appear in this book are composites of multiple patients” (v). In other words, there is no point in trying to evaluate the anecdotal evidence: it has been manipulated—in the interest of telling a good story, of course—so it is scientifically worthless.

Although Oscar takes his place among other alleged animal prodigies (Nickell 2002)—like the dog that supposedly knew when her owner was coming home (Wiseman et al. 1998)—Dosa’s own assessment at the end of his suggestive book is quite equivocal (219):

I don’t really pretend to know the nature of Oscar’s special gift—I am not an animal behaviorist nor have I rigorously studied the why and how of his behavior. Whether he is motivated by a refined sense of smell, a special empathy, or something en­tirely different—your guess is as good as mine.

Oh, I didn’t know we were just guessing. My guess is that Oscar is a magnet for fuzzy thinking. l

Acknowledgments

I am grateful for research assistance from CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga, as well as my wife, Diana Harris.

References

Alcock, James. 1994. An analysis of psychic sleuths’ claims. Afterword to Nickell 1994, 172–190.

Dosa, David. 2007. A day in the life of Oscar the cat. New England Journal of Medicine 357(4): 328–329.

———. 2010. Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. New York: Hyperion.

Nickell, Joe, ed. 1994. Psychic Sleuths: ESP and Sensational Cases. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2002. Psychic pets and pet psychics. Skeptical Inquirer 26(6): 12–15, 18.

Wiseman, Richard, Matthew Smith, and Julie Milton. 1998. Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the “psychic pet” phenomenon. British Journal of Psychology 89: 453–462.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.