From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]




Cat predicts deaths of nursing home residents
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for
predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up
next to them during their final hours.

His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call
family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have
less than four hours to live.

“He doesn’t make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when
patients are about to die,” said Dr. David Dosa in an interview. He
describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in Thursday’s issue of
the New England Journal of Medicine.

“Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the
companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one,” said
Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown

The 2-year-old feline was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a
third-floor dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and
Rehabilitation Center. The facility treats people with Alzheimer’s,
Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses.

After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own
rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He’d sniff and observe
patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few

Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally
aloof. “This is not a cat that’s friendly to people,” he said.

Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work
there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at
the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill

She was convinced of Oscar’s talent when he made his 13th correct
call. While observing one patient, Teno said she noticed the woman
wasn’t eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a
bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.

Oscar wouldn’t stay inside the room though, so Teno thought his
streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor’s prediction was
roughly 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient’s final
two hours, nurses told Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her

Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-
faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don’t know he’s
there, so patients aren’t aware he’s a harbinger of death. Most
families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted
Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar is put
outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.

No one’s certain if Oscar’s behavior is scientifically significant
or points to a cause. Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents
or reads something into the behavior of the nurses who raised him.

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioral clinic at the
Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read
Dosa’s article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how
Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it’s also possible his
behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated
blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.

Nursing home staffers aren’t concerned with explaining Oscar, so
long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the

Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his
“compassionate hospice care.”

Volume 357:328-329   July 26, 2007
A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat
David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H.

Oscar the Cat awakens from his nap, opening a single eye to survey his
kingdom. From atop the desk in the doctor’s charting area, the cat
peers down the two wings of the nursing home’s advanced dementia unit.
All quiet on the western and eastern fronts. Slowly, he rises and
extravagantly stretches his 2-year-old frame, first backward and then
forward. He sits up and considers his next move.

In the distance, a resident approaches. It is Mrs. P., who has been
living on the dementia unit’s third floor for 3 years now. She has
long forgotten her family, even though they visit her almost daily.
Moderately disheveled after eating her lunch, half of which she now
wears on her shirt, Mrs. P. is taking one of her many aimless strolls
to nowhere. She glides toward Oscar, pushing her walker and muttering
to herself with complete disregard for her surroundings. Perturbed,
Oscar watches her carefully and, as she walks by, lets out a gentle
hiss, a rattlesnake-like warning that says “leave me alone.” She
passes him without a glance and continues down the hallway. Oscar is
relieved. It is not yet Mrs. P.’s time, and he wants nothing to do
with her.

Oscar jumps down off the desk, relieved to be once more alone and in
control of his domain. He takes a few moments to drink from his water
bowl and grab a quick bite. Satisfied, he enjoys another stretch and
sets out on his rounds. Oscar decides to head down the west wing
first, along the way sidestepping Mr. S., who is slumped over on a
couch in the hallway. With lips slightly pursed, he snores peacefully
– perhaps blissfully unaware of where he is now living. Oscar
continues down the hallway until he reaches its end and Room 310. The
door is closed, so Oscar sits and waits. He has important business

Twenty-five minutes later, the door finally opens, and out walks a
nurse’s aide carrying dirty linens. “Hello, Oscar,” she says. “Are you
going inside?” Oscar lets her pass, then makes his way into the room,
where there are two people. Lying in a corner bed and facing the wall,
Mrs. T. is asleep in a fetal position. Her body is thin and wasted
from the breast cancer that has been eating away at her organs. She is
mildly jaundiced and has not spoken in several days. Sitting next to
her is her daughter, who glances up from her novel to warmly greet the
visitor. “Hello, Oscar. How are you today?”

Oscar takes no notice of the woman and leaps up onto the bed. He
surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and
her breathing is labored. Oscar’s examination is interrupted by a
nurse, who walks in to ask the daughter whether Mrs. T. is
uncomfortable and needs more morphine. The daughter shakes her head,
and the nurse retreats. Oscar returns to his work. He sniffs the air,
gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly
leaves the room. Not today.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The
door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in
her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by
photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite
these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again
sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns
around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on
her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she
hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s
chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls.

Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought
into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is
called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead
purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K. A young grandson asks his mother,
“What is the cat doing here?” The mother, fighting back tears, tells
him, “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Thirty minutes later,
Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks
around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family
barely notices.

On his way back to the charting area, Oscar passes a plaque mounted on
the wall. On it is engraved a commendation from a local hospice
agency: “For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to
Oscar the Cat.” Oscar takes a quick drink of water and returns to his
desk to curl up for a long rest. His day’s work is done. There will be
no more deaths today, not in Room 310 or in any other room for that
matter. After all, no one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a
visit and stays awhile.

Note: Since he was adopted by staff members as a kitten, Oscar the Cat
has had an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die.
Thus far, he has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents on
the third floor of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in
Providence, Rhode Island. His mere presence at the bedside is viewed
by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator
of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify
families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would
otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the
physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the
residents whom he serves.

{Source Information : Dr. Dosa is a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant
professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown
University – both in Providence.}

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