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Can a hospice cat signal death is looming?

16th century Italians looked on black cats with a wary eye. Especially if one snuggled up to a bedridden patient. The cat’s affection, they thought, signaled that death was approaching.

16th century Italians looked on black cats with a wary eye. Especially if one snuggled up to a bedridden patient. The cat’s affection, they thought, signaled that death was approaching. Oscar the Cat is not black, he has patches of white and grey fur, but this modern feline seems to have an uncanny knack for sensing imminent death. The two-year-old cat was adopted by a nursing home in Providence, R.I. as a kitten, and has been living on the third floor, in the dementia unit, ever since.

Six months after taking up residence in the nursing home, staff members started noticing that Oscar was doing his own rounds, just like doctors and nurses, visiting patients from room to room. But Oscar never stayed with someone for long. As a matter of fact, he is described as rather aloof, not particularly people-friendly. On several occasions, however, Oscar would cuddle up to a patient, and within two hours, that patient died.

This eerie phenomenon was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine by Dr. David M. Dosa, a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. In a brief essay, Dosa describes how Oscar inspects and sniffs a terminal patient in Room 310, but decides that it is not time yet and dashes off. Room 313 has a different fate, however. “Oscar jumps onto the bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.” Circumspect, the nurse hurries to notify the family. Half an hour later, the family arrives, the priest delivers the last rites, and during all this time, the cat does not budge. Instead, he purrs and gently nuzzles Mrs. K. Sure enough, thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last breath. As if his job is done here, Oscar sits up, looks around, and then departs the room almost unnoticed.

This is not the first time that Oscar’s purr ushered in the Grim Reaper. According to Dosa, Oscar has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents on the third floor of the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, and is sometimes more accurate than physicians at predicting when a patient is going to die. When Dr. Joan Teno, another physician at the home, saw that Oscar visited but did not curl up with a patient with clear signs of pre-death (erratic breathing, bluish skin), she thought that Oscar’s lucky streak had come to an end. But it turns out that Teno was wrong. Ten hours later the patient did pass away, and as a nurse later informed Teno, two hours before death struck, Oscar had returned, and this time, he stayed. This was Oscar’s thirteenth remarkable prediction.

The cat’s presence at the bedside is deemed an almost certain indicator of impending death, and has allowed physicians and nurses to give advance warnings to families who usually appreciate the notifications. Although no one truly understands how Oscar senses death, or why he performs vigil on the deathbed, he seems to take his job very seriously. When not allowed to stay with the dying patient, Oscar meows his discontent and paces at the door. This amazing animal has even been awarded with a plaque from a local hospice agency for his “compassionate hospice care”.

An intriguing story, to be sure, but not all that strange. After all, we’ve heard of dogs that can sniff out cancer metabolites in the urine, or are able to detect an imminent seizure attack. Animals can smell subtle odors produced by the sick body and can pick up changes in behavior, or physiological manifestations such as pupil dilation. It is possible that Oscar can smell organs shutting down. Kidney or liver failure can cause waste products or acids to build up in the bloodstream, resulting in a noxious or sweet aroma on the dying patients’ breath.

But did anyone document how many times Oscar paid bedside visit to someone who didn’t die? Or if you ask Jay Leno, he’ll say that “maybe those people were allergic to cats.” Whatever the reason, one thing is for sure: No matter how much you love cats, you don’t want this one near you.

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