Oscar, a two year old cat that lives at a nursing home in Providence, Rhode Island in the New England region of the United States, appears to know when residents at the home are approaching their final hours because he curls up next to them.

The story of Oscar, the hospice cat who conducts daily rounds like a feline version of a hospital consultant and appears to be able to predict when patients are going to die, is told in an essay about a day in his life by one of the doctors, David Dosa, in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Dosa said that Oscar has been accurate in 25 cases so far. He sits with patients at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, when they are in their last four hours of life.

“He doesn’t make many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die,” said Dosa in an interview with the Associated Press news agency. Dosa is professor of medicine at Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, Rhode Island, and a geriatric consultant at the nursing home.

Dosa said that relatives of the dying patients “take solace” from this curious phenomenon. The companionship that Oscar provides is appreciated, he said.

Oscar was adopted by the medical staff as a kitten and his home ever since has been on the third floor of the nursing home, with the dementia patients.

Soon, he was making his own rounds, sniffing patients and looking them over, then he would curl up beside a patient who died a few hours later.

Staff at the hospital trust Oscar’s instinct so much that they call the patient’s relatives to let them know it’s likely their loved one will be passing away soon.

Dosa says Oscar is an “aloof” cat who is not normally friendly towards people, he describes him as hissing at a patient when she walks past. But he seems to take his work very seriously, and when he settles next to a patient who is dying, he purrs and nuzzles them.

Sometimes, when he is ejected from his vigil beside a dying patient (some families don’t like him there), he paces and meows outside the room.

Cat experts say that cats can sense illness, especially in their owners or other animals. They can also sense changes in the weather, and their ability to sense impending earthquakes is well known.

According to a report in the Washington Post yesterday, another doctor at the home, Joan Teno who is also of Brown University and experienced at treating terminally ill patients, said that Oscar can predict who is going to die more accurately than the staff.

She became convinced of Oscar’s “skill” while she was treating a patient who had stopped eating, was breathing erratically and her legs had started to look blue. She thought the patient was near death. But although Oscar called in to see her, he did not stay in the room.

However, as Teno later found out, this was 10 hours before the patient actually died, and the nurses told her that Oscar came back to sit with the dying patient 2 hours before she finally passed away. This was Oscar’s 13th accurate prediction.

Speculating on the accuracy of Oscar’s predictions, Teno said she wondered if he smells something, or he notices subtle changes in the behaviour of the nurses while they attend the patients.

There is a commendation wall plaque at the nursing home, awarded to Oscar by a local hospice agency. The plaque reads: “For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat”.

“A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat.”
David M. Dosa.
NEJM Volume 357:328-329, July 26, 2007, Number 4

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Written by: Catharine Paddock