You wouldn’t want this Oscar

Satya­jit Ray received his Life­time Achieve­ment Oscar on his deathbed. The only Oscar most of us can prob­a­bly get on ours is this feline fatale:

Oscar the cat seems to have an uncan­ny knack for pre­dict­ing when nurs­ing home patients are going to die, by curl­ing up next to them dur­ing their final hours. His accu­ra­cy, observed in 25 cas­es, has led the staff to call fam­i­ly mem­bers once he has cho­sen some­one. It usu­al­ly means the patient has less than four hours to live.Oscar the cat

Note that the above is a CNN sto­ry. I Can Has CNN, can’t I?

Wait, what about a sci­en­tif­ic expla­na­tion? Well, at present, there’s none:

No one’s cer­tain if Oscar’s behav­ior is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant or points to a cause. Teno won­ders if the cat notices tell­tale scents or reads some­thing into the behav­ior of the nurs­es who raised him.

Nicholas Dod­man, who directs an ani­mal behav­ioral clin­ic at the Tufts Uni­ver­si­ty Cum­mings School of Vet­eri­nary Med­i­cine and has read Dosa’s arti­cle, said the only way to know is to care­ful­ly doc­u­ment how Oscar divides his time between the liv­ing and dying.

If Oscar real­ly is a fur­ry grim reaper, it’s also pos­si­ble his behav­ior could be dri­ven by self-cen­tered plea­sures like a heat­ed blan­ket placed on a dying per­son, Dod­man said.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, this research was first pub­lished in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Med­i­cine. For more infor­ma­tion on the var­i­ous research method­olo­gies and sta­tis­ti­cal tech­niques used in the papers of this jour­nal, read an enlight­ened surgeon’s lucid expla­na­tion.

No won­der then that the num­ber of stu­dents enrolling for med­ical schools in the US is increas­ing, while the num­bers for com­put­er sci­ence is decreas­ing. Schol­ar­ly stu­dents are attract­ed by the com­plex chal­lenges involved in study­ing cat behav­ior and such dis­tin­guished jour­nals, rather than wast­ing time in triv­ial things like solv­ing com­put­er pro­gram­ming puz­zles.

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  • Mahen­dra,
    Based on a Lev­el I (ran­domised, dou­ble-blind tri­al) on more than 22,589 patients from 1998 till 2006, I have incon­tro­vert­ible evi­dence that the fol­low­ing are the rea­sons for the Oscar phe­nom­e­non (which is not unique, but has been stud­ied by me with ser­i­al CAT scans on 5530 cas­es):
    1. Cats smell ace­tone in the breath of the dying (cats have strong sense of smell): 57.61% of cas­es.
    2. Cats get curi­ous when peo­ple stop mov­ing. In these cas­es, the curios­i­ty cat kills (26.23% of cas­es).
    3.Cats fol­low move­ment of staff, and may sense that the more nurs­es crowd around sick patients, the more the chances of death (13.49% of cas­es).
    4. Doc­tors and nurs­es see their own emo­tions reflect­ed in the cat-eyes, since cats emo­tions are very reserved as a rule (mis­cel­la­neous).
    I am puss­ing to pub­lish this arti­cle (have failed nine times so far), but there is some­thing fishy and cata­ton­ic about the NEJM. I can cat­e­gor­i­cal­ly say this, with­out fur­ther mews­ing.

  • Ram­bodoc-

    I can­not tell if you are jok­ing are not. But I am inter­est­ed in this phe­nom­e­na. I have a friend who has seizures, she has a dog that cam smell minute blood com­po­si­tion changes that take place before seizures hap­pen and warn her. It would make sense to me, then, that cat’s could ‘smell’?? phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes that hap­pen before a per­son dies. How­ev­er, I do not know if ‘uni­ver­sal’ phys­i­o­log­i­cal changes hap­pen a few hours before death. Do they?

    Mahen­drap -

    You are mak­ing me crazy. I like what you have to say, but why do you pref­er­ence such an opres­sive view of sci­ence? Study­ing cat behav­ior can lead to impor­tant impor­tant dis­cov­er­ies, I think. Maybe? I don’t know. But I do know that I Can Has Cheezburg­er is fun­ny, fun­ny, fun­ny. And I did my under­grad­u­ate stud­ies in both the­o­ret­i­cal physics and phi­los­o­phy, and I am also a com­put­er pro­gram­mer — for fun. so I do like sci­ence, and I prob­a­bly think a lot like you. But those cats are fun­ny. Admit it.

  • Aika­ter­ine:

    Ram­bodoc is not jok­ing in the sub­stance of what he’s say­ing. In fact, he’s shed sci­en­tif­ic light on the whole phe­nom­e­non!

    Seizure dogs are a very well doc­u­ment­ed and stud­ied phe­nom­e­na, there is no mys­tery sur­round­ing them. Just google “seizure dogs” and you’ll see, for e.g. http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/epilepsyusa/aboutseizuredogs.cfm.

    Final­ly, I apol­o­gize — there was no such inten­tion! “Oppres­sive view of sci­ence”? What luck — I try my hand at my first satir­i­cal post and I turn up dri­ving peo­ple crazy! I should give it up! 🙂

    To clar­i­fy: I’m the most aggres­sive sup­port­er of sci­ence you’ll ever meet. In my post, I was mak­ing fun of how much hoopla is being made in the press, and what is being pub­lished as ‘research’ in a med­ical jour­nal. Rambodoc’s com­ment above con­tains more sub­stan­tial sci­en­tif­ic research than what was pub­lished in the jour­nal. That is what I was (try­ing to) make fun of…

    Regard­ing I Can Has Cheezburg­er: I’ve noth­ing against cats, and yes they’re fun­ny. I just don’t think that mil­lions of human beings should be obsessed with this par­tic­u­lar hob­by when there are so many oth­er, more impor­tant things, to see, feel, lis­ten, expe­ri­ence, think, write, and com­ment about.

    The­o­ret­i­cal physics and philosophy…now that’s inter­est­ing! I was always so frus­trat­ed with Indi­an edu­ca­tion that I had to choose between ‘sci­ence’, ‘com­merce’, or ‘arts’, and that I couldn’t mix and match my inter­ests. How I envy you…:-)

  • Hey, guys!
    I WAS jok­ing (the num­bers and ‘tri­al’)! Trust me to hang a Poor Joke in your blog!! 🙁
    Of course, well-hid­den in the satire were the plau­si­ble expla­na­tions of this behav­ior. Much of the sub­stances which we can’t smell and ani­mals can, are unknown ter­ri­to­ry. It is dif­fi­cult to talk about uni­ver­sal chem­i­cal give-ways at the time of death. But a few com­pounds, like ace­tone in the breath of an aci­dot­ic, sick, dying patient, could be com­mon. The rest is, well, smoke and mir­rors!

  • That’s what I meant by ‘sub­stance’. Not the num­bers, but your points them­selves shed much more light on the issue than that ‘research’. 🙂

  • Oh, I think I was not clear. I can tell that you sup­port sci­ence. And I could see the humor and it was fun­ny. But what I meant with the ‘opres­sive’ view was the tra­di­tion­al view. I tend to be very open about what I con­sid­er sci­ence. And like to see non-tra­di­tion­al things print­ed in med­ical jour­nals. Still sub­ject to the ten­ants of the sci­en­tif­ic method, but a lit­tle on the edge, if you will. I like to see bound­aries pushed.

    And I do agree with you on this state­ment:

    I just don’t think that mil­lions of human beings should be obsessed with this par­tic­u­lar hob­by when there are so many oth­er, more impor­tant things, to see, feel, lis­ten, expe­ri­ence, think, write, and com­ment about.”

    But, isn’t humor, pas­sion and emo­tion just as impor­tant as sci­ence? Aren’t they equal in impor­tance? Don’t we need to laugh just as bad­ly as we need to learn?

    There are things about your cul­ture that I envy:

    (1) the food — fab­u­lous
    (2) the wed­dings — I have been to three and they are amaz­ing.
    (3) indi­an women have a sense of pride that is absent from Amer­i­can women, luck­i­ly I am Greek and I get my pride from that side. But young Amer­i­can women, in gen­er­al, depress me.
    (4) saris

    I some­times think that men pref­er­ence sci­ence too much. Ratio­nal­i­ty is impor­tant, but not as impor­tant as pas­sion. That is why I went into my edu­ca­tion, not to impress you, but to high­light that some­one with a love and knowl­edge of sci­ence could also say that emo­tion is just as impor­tant.

  • Mahen­dra — I fig­ured that’s what you meant by sub­stance.

  • Ram­bodoc -

    Thank you for answer­ing. It just ‘makes sense’ that they would smell some­thing, some chem­i­cal. I cer­tain­ly don’t buy into the the­o­ry that it is a ‘sixth sense’ or psy­chic thing.

  • His­tor­i­cal­ly, sixth sense, para­nor­mal behav­iour and super­nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­na have always referred to things that gen­er­al­ly didn’t have a ratio­nal expla­na­tion at that point in time. Kind of like when man used to wor­ship the Sun and then pret­ty much stopped being in awe of the sun when sci­en­tists told us that its a mid­dling yel­low dwarf in a remote cor­ner of a medi­um sized galaxy.

    But cats, on the oth­er hand, are def­i­nite­ly para­nor­mal. The one who haunts my house has the abil­i­ty to break open the milk pack­et deliv­ered by the milk­man no mat­ter what pro­tec­tion we give it.

  • Now that you men­tion it, Krishashok, my cat does some unex­plain­able things as well, maybe…

  • Aika­ter­ine: I do not sub­scribe to the view that science/rationality are at oppos­ing ends to emotion/passion. I’m extreme­ly pas­sion­ate and emo­tion­al about sci­ence and ratio­nal­i­ty. Regard­ing men pre­fer­ring sci­ence too much, how I wish it were true!

    Nev­er­the­less, I get your drift — that men don’t seem to val­ue emo­tion and pas­sion as much as women do. I believe “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” does shed some light on this issue.

    Ashok: ha ha ha! Jokes apart, do you real­ly think “man” has stopped being in awe of the sun? These days, who lis­tens to, or reads, what sci­en­tists are say­ing? The swami­jis, devis, gurus, and oth­er enlight­ened spir­i­tu­al lead­ers hold mil­lions of peo­ple in awe, not the bor­ing sci­en­tists!

  • Mahen­dra -

    Regard­ing men pre­fer­ring sci­ence too much, how I wish it were true!”

    You have a good point. And it is good to know that you see the val­ue in passion/emotion, I always got a sense from your writ­ing that you did. But, one nev­er knows.

    By the way, what is the pic­ture on your icon/avatar thing? It is mys­te­ri­ous and beau­ti­ful.