A Brief History
On October 1, 2014, the findings of a medical study of adults between the ages of 57 and 85 published in the online journal PLOS ONE created a little stir on the internet when it was reported that a loss in one’s sense of smell could be indicative that one has less than five years to live!
In other words, how good or bad one’s olfactory system is operating could be an indicator of one’s mortality and remaining life expectancy. The exact mechanism, i.e. the correlation between the nose and general health, for this discovery is yet unknown, and further studies are necessary.
As if one did not have enough worries! Yes, as we get older, our senses get worse, and yes, as we get older, our chances of dying are greater. This study, however, has pointed something out to the author. Probably the same state of health or lifestyle that is conducive to developing illness also causes one’s capabilities and faculties to decline as well. So, it would probably be best not to fret and fear for one’s life when one notices one cannot smell the peppermint toothpaste anymore but instead one should take it as an opportunity to ask oneself “What can I do to improve the general state of my health?” Perhaps this study is a blessing in disguise; it gives people a chance to implement positive changes in terms of diet, exercise and environmental toxins, so that whatever has caused their ability to perceive smell to deteriorate is caught in its tracks before it affects systems that are pertinent to maintaining life. Just a thought.
On the topic of smell and death, however, there is also some indication that people and animals who are in the process of dying begin to smell different. In this case, it’s not their ability to detect scents, odors and fragrances but rather how others perceive them. In a nursing home in Rhode Island, for example, there is a therapy cat named Oscar who visits and comforts residents who are about to die. Starting in 2005, when Oscar shows up, the nursing staff knows to contact family members so that they can be there for the passing of their loved one. Media outlets have jokingly dubbed poor Oscar “the Grim Rea-Purr” or “Dr. Catvorkian.” Various theories exist for the cat’s uncanny ability to predict death, but most likely the cat, who has spent most of his life in the nursing home and whose olfactory senses are at least 14 times as good as that of humans, recognizes when the body emits “the smell of death.” Though there is not much information regarding this type of exudation, the author is sure it exists because in the days before her own cat passed away of old age, the cat smelled different from how it did when it was healthy, and this other, stale smell permeated the entire house and was especially noticeable to visitors.
Luckily for the dying residents, Oscar mainly stays in the dementia ward so when they see him, they do not quite understand the full meaning of the visit. If anyone who still had their faculties and wits about them saw that cat walking their way, they would probably go running in the other direction. In fact, the author’s father believes to have read somewhere that one horrified resident actually threw Oscar out of the window, knowing that he was the “Angel of Death!” The author, however, could find no information to confirm this. Then again, she has not been able to find any life sign of Oscar on the internet since 2010 either…
Question for students (and subscribers): What is one of the many ways in which cats are useful to humans? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
P.S. Don’t you think the title of this article would make an excellent addition in the The Cat Who… mystery series by Lilian Jackson Braun? The Cat Who Can Smell Death – awesome title! Too bad Ms. Braun passed away in 2011 🙁
For more information, please see…
Dosa, David. Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. Hachette Books, 2011.