The feline harbinger of death (and other strange tales of pets' sixth sense)
When I was a kid I remember falling ill one day and spending a prolonged period of time in my bed. The illness was thankfully short-lived, and I certainly don’t recall its manifestation, but I do remember the family cat’s reaction. Perse (short for Persephone) spent her day collecting leaves off a common houseplant and clustering them at my bedside. It was strange—and wonderful—to be so cared for by this kitty.
The most recent edition of The New England Journal of Medicine seems to corroborate my findings with respect to feline care of the infirm—with a twist. It published an essay by a nursing home physician at Brown University who reports that the home’s cat, Oscar, has a thing for dying patients.
25 out of the last 25 patients to have died in this Providence facility for Parkinsonians, Alzheimer’s patients and other hard-case geriatrics were visited by this cat hours before dying. Oscar stayed with them through the end, content to snuggle with the patients until their last breath.
It’s a romantic notion, perhaps especially to someone who’s spent most of her life caring for animals, that my own pets might choose to lay at my bedside as I expire. And if I don’t have the luxury of being home in my last moments, it’s a beautiful thought that some interested cat might choose to accompany me, instead.
I’ve heard many such stories where pets seem to know that things are happening in our bodies before we’re capable of recognizing it ourselves. Cancer, seizures and other physiologic changes are often foretold by our own pets.
The recent interest in mining our pets’ sixth sense in human medicine is a welcome trend for those of us who know from personal experience that our non-human companions deserve respect for more than just their companionship.