Dear Straight Dope:
I read a novel yesterday where a woman died alone in her house with only her cat. A police officer who went in to investigate came out shortly and said that the cat had already gotten to her. It went on to explain that house cats have a survival instinct that kicks in when their owners die, and they will eat parts of them in order to live because they cease to recognize their owners as people and more as a food source. I realize that this book was fiction but I was wondering if there was any truth at all to this?
S.L.K, Houston, TX
SDStaff Hawk replies:
I don’t know what it is about the Teeming Millions and death, but I sure manage to stay busy around here. There’s one guy over on the Straight Dope Message Board who wants to know the legal issues in getting a corpse stuffed and mounted, for crying out loud. Oddly enough, your question contains more fact than fiction.
The fifty-cent word for the event that you describe is “postmortem predation” and it is a major concern for those involved in death investigation and the forensic sciences. For example, let’s say that a set of skeletonized remains is found in a heavily wooded area. When the remains have been inventoried, it is learned that all the bones of both hands are missing. Were the hands removed to hide the deceased’s fingerprints? A gruesome scenario, yes, but consider this alternative: a hiker has a fatal heart attack and collapses, where some woodland creatures gnaw off the hands (as the only exposed areas of the body) and make away with them. Both scenarios are plausible, but vastly different: is this a homicide or an accidental death? The main difference, of course, is how much paperwork you have to fill out.
I was attending the 1992 American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference in New Orleans and a forensic pathologist related the following story (paraphrased as best as memory will serve): “Sometimes, when an individual living alone dies unexpectedly, several days may pass before anyone takes notice. Some of these individuals may own a dog or a cat, which will go unfed. In my experience, a dog may go for several days before finally resorting to eating the owner’s body. A cat, on the other hand, will only wait a day or two. Just goes to show you which is more loyal. So, the next time you’re falling asleep on the couch with the football game on, take a look at your cat. He’s not watching you because he’s enamored of you; he’s checking to see if your chest is still moving.” Oh, those wacky pathologists.
I can’t explain why a cat may be so quick to turn on the hand that fed it. I can only tell you that yes, it does happen. As a single guy living alone with three cats, I can tell you that I keep plenty of kibble about, because you never know.
SDStaff Hawk, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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