Thursday, August 2, 2007

How did Oscar, the death-sensing cat, nose his way into an elite medical journal?

Slate Magazine: By Daniel Engber
...In fact, the popular press accounts of Oscar the Cat provide more scientific analysis than the original journal article—they quote animal behavior experts who speculate on how he might accomplish his feat. Dosa tells us only that 'Oscar the Cat has had an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die' and that he's 'presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents' by nuzzling them during their last few hours of life. That's a lot of pre-death nuzzles, but we don't know Oscar's success rate—does anyone keep track of the number of times he nuzzles people who don't die? And we can't separate out causes, effects, and correlations. (As Jay Leno said the other night, 'Anyone stop to think maybe these patients are allergic to cats?')

It wouldn't be that amazing if Oscar really could tell when someone's about to die. After all, we're not that bad at figuring it out ourselves. Since Dosa's essay was published, other researchers have argued that the cat might be using its acute sense of smell to detect a patient's organs shutting down. But you don't need a superhuman nose to suss out the bouquet of death. Kidney or liver failure can cause waste products or acids to build up in the bloodstream, and patients with these conditions sometimes have a noxious or sweet aroma on their breath. ...

In an e-mail, a NEJM representative explained the decision to run Dosa's piece: "From time to time, we publish such personal narratives by physician writers." But this isn't just a personal narrative—it's a piece of magical realism that has been taken for science. If doctors really can use household pets as a diagnostic aid, let's find some genuine research on the subject.

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