February 3, 2010

Cat Predicts Deaths At RI Nursing Home

When Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Brown University, published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 describing a cat named Oscar who could sense when someone was dying, many grew fearful of the what they saw as a four legged grim reaper.   

Although Dr. Dosa never intended to make the cat sound frightening, records have shown that since the paper's publishing, Oscar has rarely erred in his predictions -- sometimes even proving medical staff wrong.

In fact, the feline has gone on to double the number of imminent deaths it has sensed, and has convinced Dr. Dosa that it is no coincidence.

The generally unsociable cat, now five, was adopted as a kitten at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island.

He now spends his days going from room to room at the facility, which specializes in caring for dementia patients, and rarely spends more than a few minutes with patients except those with just hours to live.  If unable to get into the room of a dying patient, Oscar will stand outside scratching on the door.

One particular time, nurses placed the cat on the bed of a patient they believed was close to death, only to find Oscar "charging out" of the room to sit beside a patient in another room, who died later that day. The first patient lived for two more days.

Dr. Dosa and the staff are so sure of Oscar's accuracy that they will inform family members when the cat jumps on to a bed and curls up next to a patient.

"It's not like he dawdles. He'll slip out for two minutes, grab some kibble and then he's back at the patient's side. It's like he's literally on a vigil," wrote Dr. Dosa.

Five other cats are kept at the nursing home, none of which have shown a similar ability, Dr. Dosa said.

In his book "Making rounds with Oscar: the extraordinary gift of an ordinary cat", Dr. Dosa offers provides no definitive scientific explanation for the cat's talents, but suggests that Oscar may be able to detect ketones, biochemicals given off by dying cells.

Far from shying away from Oscar's presence, residents and staff at the nursing home now recognize its significance.  Indeed, relatives and friends of patients have been comforted, and have even praised the cat in newspaper death notices and eulogies, Dr. Dosa said.

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

Image Courtesy Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center