Uncanny Cat Keeps Vigil for the Dying

February 8, 2010 | By Gabrielle Jonas | Category: Strange But True | 48 comments
Tags: strange but true, cats

Oscar the cat. Courtesy of Steere House Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.

With an uncanny knack for predicting which patients are reaching their final hours, Oscar, a cat in a Rhode Island nursing facility, is signaling staff to alert family members.

The five-year-old tomcat, who has made about 50 correct predictions in about four years, is the subject of a book making the media circuit.

“Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat,” (Hyperion, $23.99) describes a cat who has lived most of his life on a 45-patient ward serving severe dementia patients near the end of their lives.

Nurses rescued him from a nearby shelter when he was a five-month-old kitten. But the brown and black Tabby did not display his awesome talent until he was about one year old.

Staff members know when a patient is reaching the end of life when they see Oscar — who normally sleeps at the nurse’s station under the desk — enter a patient’s room and sleep on the window sill or curl up on the bed, said Julie H. Richard, Executive Director of Steere House Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.

“Oscar patrols the halls, and generally begins hanging out near a particular room close within a few hours of a patient’s death,” she said.

“He kneads the blankets at the foot of the bed. Sometimes he leaves just as the person takes their last breath, and sometimes he waits until the body leaves the room.”

Once, Oscar avoided the room of a patient whom staff thought was dying, in favor of spending time in a room on the other side of the ward with a patient whose time was not considered to be yet at hand. The patient Oscar visited died within hours, and two days later, Oscar visited the other patient, who also then died within hours, the director said.

“Oscar is a valuable member of our team, because the accuracy of his predictions allows staff to make those all-important phone calls to family,” Richard said.

The cat has been right about 90 percent of the time, according to Richard.

Oscar regularly patrols the wing with a purposefulness that has amazed the book’s author, Dr. David M. Dosa, a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, both in Providence.

Dr. Dosa made the Tabby famous about two years ago, when he wrote a short article in the respected peer-reviewed medical publication the New England Journal of Medicine. The cat became an internet sensation: for a few days, “Oscar the Cat” received more hits than almost any other topic on the web.

At the time, Dr. Dosa described how Oscar nuzzled a dying patient and purred. The patient’s daughter told her son that Oscar was “helping Grandma go to Heaven,” Dr. Dosa wrote.

Giving comfort seems to take a lot out of Oscar, who sometimes sleeps deeply for days afterwards.

How does he know? The staff thinks he has a heightened olfactory sensitivity to dying cells.

But why does he care? The staff thinks that Oscar, who grew up on the ward, is imitating the nurses who raised him.

“He’s a very good observer,” Richard said. “You can see him paying attention to the comings and goings of the ward.”

For his observations and ministering to the dying, Oscar has received a plaque from a local hospice praising his efforts.

“Oscar helps us care for the people we care for, better,” Richard said. “He gives us this chance to make the phone call to family members, and they are very appreciative. It gives them one more chance for closure.”

The 120-bed facility has other animals in residence as well: two cats on each of its three floors, as well as parakeets. Oscar has a companion called Maya, though she hasn’t shown the same interest in patients he has.

“Each animal has its own role on each floor,” Richard said, pointing out that the cats living in the first floor atrium behave more like lap cats.

But Oscar is not a lap cat. His interest is in standing sentry for the dying.

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Comments (38)

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di
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di
4 years ago

having been around cats all my life and knowing them, I can say they do have a sense about them that we have not paid attention to or care to zone in on. I have had cats hiss at people and have paid attention to how they react when certain people come around, their sixth sense is more accurate than ours. As dogs have shown in helping with diabetes, seizures, and even cancer, I am sure that cats have the aweness that makes them mysterious creatures that they are.

Good Point | Reply ›

Kelsey D.
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Kelsey D.
4 years ago

A cat in a hospital? My mother (a nurse) would have a heart attack!

Good Point | Reply ›

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