HAHN: Felines: smarter than humans think

Most of you have probably heard of Oscar the cat, who is a full-time resident in a Providence, R.I. nursing home. Oscar has attracted nation-wide attention because he seems to know when one of the nursing home residents is about to die.
Oscar is just an ordinary black and white, short-haired cat who was rescued and allowed to live on the third floor of Steere House, a nursing facility, since he arrived there in 2005.
Oscar is usually aloof to the activities of the human residents of the facility, but when one of the patients’ time of death is drawing near, he seems to sense it. Normally oblivious to human activity, he becomes very affectionate with patients who have only a short time to live. He lies on their beds, rubbing his furry face against them, purring loudly. He even allows the patient to pet him if the patient so desires.
Oscar, in spite of his publicity, is not unique in the animal world. Most cats have that ability. My cats have always been especially attentive to me when I have been sick. If I am in bed they spend most of their time, especially if I am alone in the house, on my bed. They sense when I am cold, often getting under the covers to warm my feet.
Cats react in strange ways to all human activities. We once had two litter mates, Betty and Ashley. Wherever we were, they were also.
My husband sneezes occasionally. (Allergic to cat hair, maybe?) When he starts sneezing, he sneezes several times in rapid succession. When this happened, Betty and Ashley would carry on an extended conversation about the event. One would make an unusual “muttering” sound to the other one, who would answer back in the same way. This repartee would continue several minutes. They sounded like two old ladies with a new tidbit of juicy gossip to relate.
Cats can also tell time. While we were both teaching, our cats would know when to expect us to return from work. I was home for several weeks after surgery on one occasion and observed that every afternoon at 3:45, the cats would sit in the window watching for my husband’s car to arrive home.
The cats we have now are fed every evening about 5 p.m. in “their” room where they sleep at night. Just before that time, they arrange themselves on the bottom step of the stairs, tails curled against their bodies and feet tucked underneath. They await the sound of their dry cat food hitting the bottom of the aluminum pie plate.
When they hear it, they stand up, ready to follow my husband to their “room” at the top of the stairs. We hear no more from them until 8 a.m.the next morning when they scratch on the door to remind us that it is time for their day to begin. You can almost set your clock by them.
When they have to take medication, they know when it is time for the next dose. They disappear. If we ignore them, they will eventually come out, thinking we have forgotten about the pill or liquid. They can also recognize the pill bottle when they see us pick it up.
Betty and Ashley lived long lives; one lived to be 19 and the other to 21 years old. During their last three or four years of life, we also acquired a dog named Patches. Patches was also elderly and not in good health. The cats resented Patches’ presence, and the dog didn’t like the cats either.
After several confrontations, they “agreed” that the upstairs would be the cats’ territory and the living room would be Patches‘. They mostly honored the agreement, except, of course, when Patches was sleeping. Then the cats used the living room freely.
One afternoon Patches decided to go upstairs where Bill was working. When she got to the top of the stairs, Betty and Ashley jumped her. Patches fled back down to the living room and never again ventured above it.
My Cat Friends
My home is where my feet touch
My bed is what’s under me when I’m sleepy
My food is anything that tastes good.
My friends are whom I choose.
The night is my safety, the day is my warmth.
I’m proud but not vain. Simple things delight me.
I love to be loved, but love when I choose.
I adapt very quickly, but prefer my routine.
I am curious to a fault.
I am beautiful, and I’m clean, and I know it.
My soft voice can comfort, my anger is clear.
I practice my agility so none can compare.
I am what I am, and I would be no other,
I am cat! And that’s that!
­—Greg Moore

Alma Joyce Hahn taught in the Benton schools for more than 30 years. Her column appears each Monday.