Cats and Death

For centuries, cats have been associated with death, and how they are perceived varies between cultures. In Western cultures, black cats are associated with bad luck, disease, and witches. This not only led to the mass killing of black cats, but also the “witches” who care for them. But in Ancient Egypt, cats are deified and mummified. (Here is a short list of how cats are linked to the dead, dying, and the ill, and another short summary of black cat myths.) Throughout history people linked cats with death or bad luck, and some of these beliefs still hold true today. But what is it about our beloved cats that makes them so notorious through history? Is it their powerful, stealthy ways that makes them so mysterious? Cats can also be creepy, but creepiness isn’t enough to feed the strong connection people feel between cats and death. Cats may have characteristics that link them to death, but perhaps our perception of these strange creatures derive from our experiences with them rather than their traits alone.

Cats, like other animals, are very intuitive and can sense things that humans cannot. For example, their eyesight and sense of smell are more acute than ours. Because cats rely primarily on body language to communicate to one another, they must be attuned to biological and behavioral changes in the other animals around them. This includes detecting weakness or changes in body temperature and odor. They are also intuitive in that they often know when they are about to die. I have heard stories where cats hide or “run away” from home to find a place to pass away peacefully. Therefore, cats are attuned to their bodies and their environment to the point where they can detect signs associated with death.

My kitty.

One extreme example is a cat in Rhode Island named Oscar, who lives in a nursing home. Oscar is known for predicting a patient’s death, and will climb onto the dying patient’s bed and stay with them until they die. Sometimes, Oscar will stay with the patient the day before death, or even a few hours beforehand. Oscar’s behavior sometimes helped notify the staff of a dying patient, and even proved the staff’s predictions to be wrong at times.

How Oscar “knows” when a patient is dying is still a mystery, but experts have their theories. First, Oscar may be smelling chemicals expelled by the dying body that we are not able to detect. The second theory is that Oscar has been imitating the behavior of hospital staff. When the staff predict that someone is dying, their behaviors change and Oscar learned to copy their behavior when a person is dying. Rather than finding this occurrence creepy, family members of the dying find Oscar’s presence comforting and the staff find Oscar’s ability helpful.

Have cats earned their reputation partially due to their uncanny ability to detect illness and imminent death? Or is it still because of their characteristics? Is it still mainly due to the eccentric cat ladies of the Salem Witch Trials? Much of Western culture today associate cats with the comfort of home and the warmth of company, but some of these old beliefs still exist. Like death, cats have a certain mystique that we find intriguing, powerful, and sometimes threatening.

4 responses to “Cats and Death

  1. Liv G. Nilsson Stutz

    This really is fascinating! The story about Oscar leaves so many questions. I wonder how the patients think about him. Is he a positive presence to them, or does he to some extent embody fear of death, since he seems to be a sort of a messenger. I also wonder what it would be like when he crawls up on your bed and stays there as a sign that death is immanent. Would that make me more fearful, or, would I be grateful for his presence and company as my life comes to an end?

  2. Perrinh Tritinass Savang

    Your post touches on a lot of interesting points! I always knew cats were symbols of death in a lot of cultures, but whether or not they were considered “evil” is another story. In your example about cats in ancient Egypt, for instance, Egyptians often saw cats as symbols of the gods and thus buried them with Pharos and other important people. They were considered more heavenly than evil. In Western culture, however, cats were and still are considered sinister, sly, and conniving. Is it their association with death that makes them so sinister or are there other factors? Also, what might be the significance of the color black? Are black cats somehow more “evil” then their brightly colored counter-parts?

    I am also curious about how cats can sense death. Biologically, perhaps they can detect odors or changes in body temperature of dying humans, but then again, so can other animals. I have heard that dogs also have the ability to sense when something is wrong with their human owners. Might they too have a “death sense?” After all, their sense of smell is top notch, and many times, the police use dogs to find dead bodies that are hidden or buried. I wonder if there are any other animals that can also sense death? There are always stories of pets that somehow know their owners have died and attempt to either alert other people or comfort the dead by lying next to them. Like cats, what is it about these animals that makes them so responsive to death?

  3. David Harrison

    My mum was diagnosed with palliative lung .ca about a year ago. I moved next door only a few years before. My mum passed away Nov 30 ,2017 ,unexpectedly. Within the last 6 weeks of her life a beautiful black female cat walked into her house and lay under her bed. She was on a small dose of morphine so we did laugh at first cause in the 38 years my mum had lived there , there wasn’t an issue of unwanted cats. This same cat stilled into my house. Despite being in contact with cats protection and no chip no one claimed this beautiful friendly cat
    2 weeks before Iost my best friend she confessed that she had said to my daughter “I’ve always wanted a black cat”. This was said only 1 week prior to Katies appearance. My mum also said ” I hope you decide to keep her” . Believe me it wasn’t a difficult decision” A beautiful ( Katie) given us hope and made us smile again after so many tears. Ali ( WestLothian)

  4. David Harrison

    David and myself (Ali) now give to cats protection every month also. I believe there was something special in relation to my mum’s death.and the appearance of this beautiful and friendly animal. RIP MUM . My life will never be quite the same till our next wee chat . Love Dave , Ali, Rachel and Sam or (Jimmy) and Katie the cat of course.xxxxxx

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