Dogs and cats are amongst the most incredible animals we can have and are almost in everyone’s lives today. They try hard to tell us things in their own way, but is sometimes difficult for us to understand them. So, sometimes we miss it, but you should watch out for the hints dogs and cats try to tell you since they do have senses that tell them, that we might be leaving soon. Like this cat in a nursing home.
Imagine you are sick, lying in some nursing home bed, hoping that you will make a miraculous recovery. Then one day a cat that has been adopted by the nursing home staff visits your bed. It curls up at your side, only for the nurses to give you a strange, sympathetic look.
That’s because whenever this cat chooses a certain person, that patient seems to die shortly after. This might sound unscientific and perhaps preposterous to you, but in 2007 an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine said just that, that a cat seemed to know when people were on their way out.
We should say that the patients at the nursing home were already terminally ill, but not necessarily on death’s door, yet when the cat visited a certain patient, they died just after. It confused the staff at the nursing home to say the least.
The cat’s name was Oscar and it was two years old when it started its routine of visiting people right before they left this planet. The nursing home in question was called Steere House nursing home and it was located in Rhode Island, USA.
It’s reported that for a number of years, it sometimes craned his neck while curling up next to a patient. When that happened, the staff called the family in, knowing this person didn’t have long left. Over the years, the cat did this to 50 patients.
What was going on? Did the cat have a super-sense? Could it literally smell death?
A doctor wrote about this strange phenomenon in 2018 and he said he talked to physicians at the nursing home and they indeed told him the story had been corroborated by a number of medical staff. This was no charlatan kind of doctor and he had actually won a Pulitzer Prize for a book called “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.”
The person who first wrote the article about Oscar and his skills said, “No one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a visit and stays a while.”
The story of Oscar and his sixth sense has elicited a lot of curiosity from doctors and the public alike. What people wanted to know is just how he did it, because it seemed certain that this cat really did get it right time after time.
The BBC asked this question, and after interviewing feline experts the conclusion was not that the cat was psychic, but perhaps that felines can smell death, something that humans cannot smell. Maybe when we are about to die the body emits certain chemicals and Oscar could pick up on that.
In another article on the now famous cat, an animal expert told the BBC, “I don’t doubt that the cat in this case is sensing death approaching. There’s little we really know about it but as the body is shutting down, I would hypothesize that the cat is sensing and smelling the organs shutting down.” That same article said that there is some research that might suggest that dogs can sense when we are really wick with certain cancers, but that research is not conclusive just yet.
There is some anecdotal evidence for this, but we can’t yet call it science
There was a case when a woman’s Chihuahua reportedly detected her breast cancer, not just once, but on three occasions. There is also some proof that dogs can detect when someone is about to have an epileptic seizure, and this has led to some dogs being given to people as alert dogs.
One woman said her alert dog licks her about 40 minutes before a major seizure so she can prepare for it. Perhaps dogs just sense this, they know when something is wrong, and perhaps Oscar the cat knew when something was very wrong.
Some experts say that with dogs they learned to sense sickness when they were wolves in packs and had to know when one part of the pack was ill, but with cats it’s more confusing as they are not pack animals. It’s not only dogs, though, that sense sickness. A story published in the Scientific American explained that laboratory studies showed how mice could also sense when other mice were sick.
There is additional anecdotal evidence that tells us some animals might know when something is seriously wrong with a person. Psychology Today published one such story in which a person’s dog howled like crazy. When the owner was asked why the dog was howling like that, he said it’s likely because someone somewhere is dying. Then it was discovered that the neighbor just died. After the death the dog stopped its howling.
Dogs and cats will tell us that something is wrong
You can find a whole host of articles out there that tell us dogs and cats can intuit when something is wrong with us, whether it be an emotional problems, sickness, or when we are on our way out.
A professor at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine told the Chicago Tribune that this is mainly down to changes in our behavior, but she also said that dogs or cats might smell sickness or impending death.
With all this anecdotal proof that dogs and cats are able to do this, what can we actually do with their ability?
Well, if animals might be able to predict death or detect disease early, wouldn’t it be great if humans could do the same. If a smell really is emitted, we should be able to smell that, too, in the best of worlds. If we can’t smell death and will never smell death, though, we’ll have to come up with something else.
If you’ve seen our show on nursing homes and what’s called palliative care you’ll know that doctors will give some people a certain amount of time to live. This is no exact science and doctors often get it wrong, usually being more optimistic rather than pessimistic. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get it right?
That has led some computer scientists to try and create an algorithm that is better at predicting death than humans. What one scientist was asked to do was create the death “sweet spot”. What that means is that people don’t want to be going into care for more than a year, so if they have longer than that the machine would say so.
On the other hand, people generally don’t want to die within three months because this gives them little time to prepare and for the family to prepare, too. What if a machine could say for certain that a person had, say, six months to live? If you could create an algorithm that estimated the time just right it would save a lot of people a lot of trouble.
Unfortunately, cats cannot do this, so computer scientists started testing an algorithm
They used over 200,000 patients, with diseases ranging from cancer to heart and kidney failure. They fed the medical information of deceased patients into their algorithm. If you could get enough information of what happened when, perhaps that algorithm could begin guessing how long a person had left.
Certain symptoms and behaviors might show up for people at the same time and so the machine could state that someone likely has six months left.
Doctors of course also have access to such information and they have a lot of experience. But a machine can access a huge amount of data very quickly, which is something doctors cannot do. Doctors work with scores of people, but a machine could work with unlimited people from all over the world if the information was fed into it.
So, that’s what the researchers did. They fed all that information into what’s called a “deep neural network.” This is an algorithm that is supposed to mimic how the human brain works. The machine had one task. It was to go through all that information and then make a decision. It was fed data from 160,000 patients, and then with the 40,000 patients left it was supposed to give an estimate as to how long they had to live.
It was pretty successful, too!
It predicted in nine out of 10 patients that they would die anytime within three to 12 months and they did die within that time frame. It was 95 percent correct when it predicted the patient had longer than twelve months to live.
Predicting death using artificial intelligence is a big thing according to an article in Wired in 2019, but that article said the machine might be biased because doctors have been biased in the past. Doctors might treat races differently and so that information will be fed into the algorithm and so it will be biased, too.
Doctors might also treat people differently according to their level of wealth, so this could be problematic if we are to trust the algorithm.
The article concluded, “Artificial intelligence is a promising tool that has shown its utility for diagnostic purposes, but predicting death, and possibly even determining death, is a unique and challenging area that could be fraught with the same biases that affect analog physician-patient interactions.”
UK has done a huge study themselves
In the UK a massive study was done using the health data of 500,000 people. It looked at how they lived and what health issues they had in their life and then predicted early death, meaning dying before the average age of death in the UK.
There was a lot of input from the participants in this study, from their waist size, to where they worked, what kinds of foods they ate, how much alcohol they drank and what their skin tone was.
An assistant professor of epidemiology and data science at the University of Nottingham said the algorithm was pretty accurate, and over 16,000 people from the 500,000 did actually die prematurely over the years the study was conducted.
The scientists used three types of algorithm, a simple one, a not so simple one, and also a very advanced deep-learning algorithm. The latter guessed premature death 76 percent in the patients that died during the study and the former guessed it right 64 percent of the time. The really simple one only 44 percent of the time.
The lead researcher said this about the results:
“We have taken a major step forward in this field by developing a unique and holistic approach to predicting a person’s risk of premature death by machine-learning. This uses computers to build new risk prediction models that take into account a wide range of demographic, biometric, clinical and lifestyle factors for each individual assessed, even their dietary consumption of fruit, vegetables and meat per day.”
It’s still early days and a lot more research needs to be done, but one day soon a computer might tell you how long you’ve got based on lots of variables. If you are already very sick perhaps an algorithm will at least tell you how long you’ve got left and so you can prepare for that.
Dogs and cats with very sensitive senses are still a bit of a mystery to us, and so we are relying more on data than dogs and cats to tell us what chance we have of surviving. This is a controversial topic of course because what if the machine gets it wrong? What if someone is told they are going to die and so just gives up? We guess it’s only a matter of time until we put our trust into these machines, but even if we do perhaps we should never give up on a miraculous recovery.
As for predicting when we’ll die in general it’s complicated.
You can go online now and input a bunch of data about yourself into a website and it will then tell you how long you’ll live, but these things can’t possibly get it right. We suggest you don’t look at these sites. We did and it seems we are going out much earlier than we expected.
The Harvard longevity specialist David Sinclair appeared on the Joe Rogan Show again recently and he pointed out that you can certainly embrace healthy habits to live a longer and more fulfilling life, but sometimes you are just unlucky in the lottery of life.
You might have heard of the French woman, Jeanne Calment, who lived until a ripe old age of 122 and a bit. She didn’t seem to do anything special, and she only gave up smoking at 117. There is some skepticism concerning the exact age she died, but she didn’t go pretty sure and that’s a fact.
She was cycling at 100, and while she didn’t have the best heart, coughed a lot, and had rheumatism, she was in good shape throughout her winter years. With that in mind we might wonder just how we might predict how old we’ll be when we die. We don’t want you to now start embracing bad habits, but just know that some people just seem to have the right genes.