When Dr. David Dosa M.D. M.P.H. first published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine on Oscar the Cat, little did he realize the furor his article would create. Nor could he possibly predict that Oscar the Steere Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center cat in Providence, R.I. would be nominated as one of the top strangest news stories of 2007.
Oscar, who was adopted by the staff of the nursing home as a young kitten from an animal shelter, seems to have an uncanny ability to predict the impending death of the residents of a facility which treats patients with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses.
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, however, 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 bedside.
While some unkindly refer to Oscar as "The Kitty of Death", Doctors say most of the more than 25 people who received a predictably noted last visit from Oscar are so ill they probably never even knew he was there, so patients aren't even aware of his unique ability nor do they appear to be afraid of him.
"I first heard about him from the nurses on the unit," said Dr. David Dosa, also a geriatrician at a Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, R.I. "It came to light that he was spending time with patients as they were becoming terminal." The cat, Dosa says, seems to snap to attention when he senses a patient is about to die."
Dosa tells of Oscar arriving at the room of a woman and curling up beside her for more than an hour, purring and paying attention to the patient as the family arrives and the priest gives last rites, then quietly taking his leave minutes after the woman passes away."As people would pass, the question was always, 'Was Oscar at the bedside?'"And the answer was invariably 'yes.'
"Oscar typically arrives at a dying patient's bedside a few hours before death, Dosa says, but sometimes a half day before. His presence has been a comfort to many family members. And his presence, coupled with a resident's worsening state of health, can help alert the nursing home staff to let family members know the patient may be nearing death.
"I think there are certain chemicals released when some one is dying, and he is smelling and sensing those," says Joan Teno, MD, professor of community health and medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, R.I., who also cares for Steere House residents.
Another possibility: "I think he is following the patterning behavior of the staff," Teno stated, "This is an excellent nursing home. If a dying person is alone, the staff will actually go in so the patient is not alone. They will hold a vigil."Oscar has seen that pattern repeated many times, she says, and may be mimicking it."Animals are intuitive," she says. "We don't give them enough credit."
Most families are grateful for the advance 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. Most are grateful to be notified and have enough time to gather around their loved one and be able to spend last precious moments together.