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Update: Oscar is a hospice cat with an uncanny knack for predicting death

posted 2/1/2010 9:44:22 PM |
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tagged: news, cat, straddle

About two or three years ago I did a blog on Oscar the cat. I was reading an update in the Columbus Dispatch today about Oscar the cat.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- The scientist in Dr. David Dosa was skeptical when first told that Oscar, an aloof cat kept by a nursing home, regularly predicted patients' deaths by snuggling alongside them in their final hours.

Dosa's doubts eroded after he and his colleagues tallied about 50 correct calls made by Oscar over five years, a process he explains in a book released this week, Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.

The feline's bizarre talent astounds Dosa, but he finds Oscar's real worth in his fierce insistence on being present when others turn away from life's most uncomfortable topic: death.

"People actually were taking great comfort in this idea, that this animal was there and might be there when their loved ones eventually pass," Dosa said. "He was there when they couldn't be."

Dosa, 37, a geriatrician and professor at Brown University, works at the Steere House with patients with severe dementia. It's usually the last stop for people so ill they cannot speak or recognize their spouses.

He once feared that families would be horrified by the furry grim reaper, especially after Dosa made Oscar famous in a 2007 essay in The New England Journal of Medicine. Instead, he said many caregivers consider Oscar a comforting presence, and some have praised him in newspaper death notices and eulogies.

"Maybe they're seeing what they want to see, but what they're seeing is a comfort to them in a real difficult time in their lives."

The nursing home adopted Oscar, a medium-haired cat with a gray-and-brown back and white belly, in 2005 because its staff thinks pets make the Steere House a home. They play with visiting children and prove a welcome distraction for patients and doctors alike.

After a year, the staff noticed that Oscar would spend his days pacing from room to room. He sniffed and looked at the patients but rarely spent much time with anyone -- except when they had just hours to live.

He's accurate enough that the staff know it's time to call family members when Oscar stretches beside their patients, who are generally too ill to notice his presence. If kept outside the room of a dying patient, he'll scratch at doors and walls to get in.

Nurses once placed Oscar in the bed of a patient they thought gravely ill. Oscar wouldn't stay put. Turns out, the medical professionals were wrong, and the patient rallied for two days. But in the final hours, Oscar held his bedside vigil without prompting.

Dosa does not explain Oscar scientifically in his book, although he theorizes that the cat imitates the nurses who raised him or smells odors given off by dying cells.

At its heart, Dosa's search is more about how people cope with death than Oscar's purported ability to predict it. Parts of his book are fictionalized. Dosa said several patients are composite characters, though the names and stories of the caregivers he interviews are real and many feel guilty.

In the book, Dosa writes about caregiver Donna Richards, who felt guilty for putting her mother in a nursing home. Richards was at her mother's bedside nonstop as she died. After three days, a nurse persuaded her to go home for a brief rest. Despite her misgivings, Richards agreed. Her mother died a short while later.

But she didn't die alone. Oscar was there.

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Feb 1 @ 9:47PM  
Now I know both Bruce and Dayna remembers Oscar the cat. It became a running joke in the blogs at the time on here.

Feb 1 @ 10:03PM  
I remember the running joke, but never knew the origion. thanks. Interesting story, i have read about him and others like him in the past.

Feb 1 @ 10:07PM  
Very interesting..Thanks Strad

Feb 1 @ 10:13PM  
I actually googled him not to long ago wondering if he was still around......

Feb 1 @ 10:15PM  
Well I don't think I recall the joke but that is an amazing story about Oscar!!!

I have a cat that I have always said would be great in a nursing home. She's so loving and intuitive that it's kinda freaky sometimes!

Thanks for posting this!!

Feb 2 @ 3:40AM  

I have read that article and also remember the joke on here.

Feb 2 @ 11:02AM  
Animals are amazing creatures. I have heard about several cats in nursing homes who can predict death. It might be the dying cells or it could be that they can pick up changes in a person's breathing as well.

Feb 3 @ 6:21AM  
Bringing in Egyption mythology here: Cats are said to be the guardians of the underworld (Land of the dead) if I remember correctly. Thanks for this blog!

My dog Preia, a 21 year old chihuahua, Saved my life by barking continuously to get the attention of neighbor when my house burned down while I was inside unconsious. Her body was found by firefighters by the chair that sat by the window. If she haden't been there barking, I wouldn't be here.

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Update: Oscar is a hospice cat with an uncanny knack for predicting death