Anti-Science

The stupid thing about the stupid death cat.


I laughed, I cried, I got sick of hearing about it. Beginning with an e-mail I received yesterday, through the dozen more e-mails last night and this morning, right past the blurb on NPR’s Morning Edition, and up to and including the four e-mails I just got, I have finally decided to log on and acknowledge the existence of a stupid cat that is supposedly predicting the deaths of seniors in a stupid retirement home, a “fact” that was reported on in a stupid essay in the usually not stupid New England Journal of Medicine. Stupid stupid stupid. Someone “observed” that when the stupid cat lays down in the vicinity of someone, they might die within a few hours. Let’s recap what we know:

Stupid Cat
Cats spend 99% of their lives lying down, often within the vicinity of a human being.

Stupid Nursing Home
By definition, these are homes full of old people who are going to die soon.

Stupid Essay
No one has actually bothered to pay attention to how often the stupid cat hangs out with people who are within hours of death. They just kind of notice when it just so happens the person dies after a visit from Stupid Death Cat. This is known as Stupid Confirmation Bias, aka “the thing you do when you remember all the times a song you were singing comes on the radio and forget all the times a song you were singing fails to come on the radio and merely annoys those people around you who are trying to listen to the radio without you bursting into a random song for no reason.”

Stupid Cat Hates People
According to residents, the cat doesn’t even like people. Hello? Cat hates people, cat hangs out with people, people mysteriously die hours later? People please, if this were an episode of Colombo we would’ve already heard Peter Falk say, “Uh, sorry sir, I just had one more question…” and then the cops storm the place and throw Mr. Whiskers into frigging Cat Penitentiary for life x 9.

Okay? Can we stop with the stupid death cat now? Thanks. Kisses.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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21 Comments

  1. That Columbo reference nearly made me coat my laptop in a fine mist of Fanta…

    But yeah, confirmation bias was precisely what I thought when I first heard about Death Cat this morning. I was slightly appalled at the fact that the nursing home supposedly calls families based on where Death Cat has chosen to nap. That seemed quite irresponsible to me…

    Imagine getting a call saying "Your (father/grandfather/uncle/etc) is dying. You should come down"…so you leave work, pick up the kids from school, and Dad/Grampa/Unkie Joe is perfectly FINE (or as near to it as one gets in a nursing home). The staff explains "Oh, Mittens here is able to predict deaths, we thought he was right…so sorry." I'd be checking Pops/ Grandpops/Unk out of there lickedy split.

    Now, I love cats, don't get me wrong. But they DO spend a decent amount of time digging through their own feces and urine…is it really ideal for them to be given free reign to walk around with their poo-covered paws and sleeping amongst people with suppressed immune functions? Just curious how 'sanitary' that might be.

  2. If only the kids from Scooby Doo were on the case, they would totally debunk this and reveal that the Death Cat is just Old Man Withers who runs the Amusement Park settling old scores.

  3. Interesting point, Expatria. Especially since the elderly are going to be at risk for toxoplasmosis, which I don't think is fatal but could still be pretty unpleasant. (And can possibly even damage eyesight! As if old people need to be any worse off in that respect.)

  4. I saw this on CNN this morning, and of course the moron anchors (I honestly don't know why I watch it anymore…) jumped right to suggesting that the cat is psychic. Even assuming it actually hangs out around almost-dead people and it isn't just confirmation bias, the much simpler explanation is that the cat has some sort of intuition that a person is getting weaker, etc.

  5. Well,

    I'm just glad to see so many people who read this Dumb @ss article felt the same way I did.

    I was thinking it might be a good subject for a certain skepital pod-cast, but I also suspected that it would be too stupid to bother with.

    I'll say one thing,

    I'm not a "cat guy" but I'd take that one, if my dogs would allow it.

    That means NO WAY, (I've tried to take in an outdoor cat but well, they're dogs…they aren't having any) but I'd like a "death cat".

    How cool is that…

    rod

    (He's right next to me, that means I have minutes, or hours, or years, or decades, perhaps even centuries, to live! AAAAAAHHHHH!!!)

  6. Way down the bottom of the article there is an attempt at rationality:

    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.

    So, psychic-cat that cares and wants to relieve human suffering or intelligent mammal taking advantage of its environment? Hmmm… tough choice, that one.

    But what's disturbing is that

    Nursing home staffers aren't concerned with explaining Oscar, so long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the dying.

    So, basically they're not concerned if the presence of a cat is a contributing factor in the death of a patient, just so long as family get to say goodbye. How sweet.

    But maybe we're being too critical. These are medical health care professionals after all. They certainly wouldn't be so stupid as to award a wall plaque publicly commending "compassionate hospice care" to just any old cat.

  7. That would be nice if they actually studied the cat. Dogs can sniff out some kinds of cancer, so maybe cats can sniff a chemical produced by failing organs and death cat hangs around for possible lunch but gets thwarted every time because humans never leave him alone with the body?

    But seriously, cats steal your breath. Even Drew Barrymore knows that.
    http://www.ezydvd.com.au/g/i/p/226749.jpg
    :)

    I wish he had a little scythe…

  8. I've seen an almost identical story some years earlier, so it's quite likely many cats do this. I agree that it's likely the cat's smelling the chemical changes in a dying body – it might be a scavaging instinct at that. Cats are in palliative care wards because the people in them are dying anyway, and it makes them more comfortable. It doesn't really matter how the cat "knows" a patient is dying – if it routinely does it only with patients that have a few hours left, it becomes a valid symptom for prognosis.

  9. So sad that at this day and age with all of the horrific, devastating, and evil events and people that surround us, you sick fools (the ones that apparently have no faith….IN ANYTHING!) take time out of your day to say moronic statements regarding uplifting stories. Your lives must be so empty and sad. I feel sorry for your pessimistic attitudes about things that make most people smile. You must be the life of the party when you are amongst friends. I know I like to surround myself with negativity so that I feel better about myself……………NOT! Why don’t you do us all a favor and see if you can find something nice to say about anything….anything at all. Huh, nothing? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Luvs Ya!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  10. Since you asked, I'm going to say something nice about YOU, jndgreen!

    I think it's pretty nifty that you would take the time to come to a website that doesn't share your point of view — one whose disagreeable premise appears in its very name (SKEPchick, not UPLIFTINGFAITHchick) — and leave a comment in an attempt to denigrate and inflame the rest of us. Honestly, I think that showed an extraordinary amount of goodwill on your point, which is sweet.

    Clearly, by saying you feel sorry for us, and in making fun of the 'negativity' you perceive here, you are ACTUALLY attempting to console by sharing the key difference between yourself and the rest of us: Not being subjected to a computer-age version of the Ludovico method, we should feel fortunate that we aren't forced to read this site the way you are.

    We can choose to come here, read the skeptical perspective, and comment accordingly, while you are OBVIOUSLY forced to do so. Because who would go out of their way to futilely leave inflammatory comments on a web site they were never forced to read? What truly superior sort of person would willingly do such a thing?

    So yes, thank you, jndgreen, for reminding us all that even in the negative, cynical pit we all have in place of our souls, there are some things for which we should truly be thankful. Mainly, that we're not you. How's that for positivity?

  11. People find the idea of a death cat uplifting? And one can be considered positive if she appends a "Luvs Ya!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" at the end of a rant about how much the target sucks? Learn something new every day.

  12. Of course the death cat is uplifting. It gives you the head start you need in order to beat your bastard siblings to Aunt Eunice's hundred-thousand dollar coin collection and antique mahogany wardrobe.

  13. You’re right Joshua, I thought the idea behind glurge-stories was that people lived, against all odds, or at least got better for a while. This story is all about people dying, and possibly or not, some cat being aware of that approaching fate and for some reason reacting to it.

    What, if anything, people find uplifting about that is beyond me. It’s like finding the story of the two year old who fell down and got stuck in the well uplifting. It’s not a happy story if somebody dies.
    It’s the same thing that makes people look at roadside accidents. “” is not the word that springs to mind there …

  14. to be honest, I can actually see why a death-kitty might be uplifting… we as humans don't deal well with the unexpected, and anything that tells us when the ultimate in the unexpected (well, the ultimate in the unpinpointably forseeable) might occur makes us feel better, even if it means we're about to croak. ie "at least if it's cancer, I know I'm gonna die" but also, for those family members who can get there, they have a chance to ask about desired funeral arrangements, and to ensure the family member is surrounded by loved ones at their death. Something I suspect isn't as uplifting for the dying as it is for those they leave behind (although, would they want to be taken along too).

    Having said all that, I'm voting for a bit of confirmation bias, and a little bit of kitty-want-food and sleeping in the warm spot. Those of you who have cats know that they invariably find the warmest spot in the house and curl up, and our cat in particular doesn't wait for the human to die before she attempts to dine, provided they're wearing explorer socks.

    in conclusion, jndgreen, I would suggest statements made here are far from the barely coherent sentences you would get from a moron. But I want to tell you, don't feel sorry for me, I'm actually quite an optimistic person with a fulfilling family life. I think it's great that astronomers have found a way to build a liquid telescope on the moon. and congrtulations to them. We, the skeptical community, have plenty of nice things to say when it's backed up by evidence, and sometimes even when it's just a nice idea, it's when it's all a bit airy fairy and/or potentially disastrous consequences are possible that we go a touch negative. The cat is a case in point: What about the people who have flown halfway around the world based on the sayso of this cat? They've spent thousands upon thousands of dollars, and the relative hasn't died. Now, in fact, I think it's great that they get to see their relative another time, but what if they'd saved that money so that they could actually be there for the person's funeral or to be with them in their last moments? I would be pissed!

    Finally, jndgreen you can spell, and that's a huge compliment on the net these days.

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