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Oscar the cat has an “uncanny ability” to predict impending death among residents of a dementia ward at the Steere House nursing home in Providence, Rhode Island—even people not known to be terminally ill.
“He's not the friendliest cat. He keeps to himself, although he can be bribed with food,” said geriatrician David Dosa, of Brown University, who has published his findings about Oscar in the New England Journal of Medicine (2007;357:328-9).
Oscar, who's usually aloof, identifies patients who will die within hours by snuggling next to them, purring, and comforting them. In the year and a half he's lived in the third floor dementia ward, he has identified more than 25 patients who were near to death. And he's never made a mistake, Dr Dosa told the BMJ.
“His mere presence is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves,” Dr Dosa wrote.
Patients in the unit are demented, unaware of their surroundings, and are not alarmed when Oscar arrives, Dr Dosa said. He's not ordinarily friendly with patients, like the other cat in the unit.
Oscar was a stray kitten brought in by a nurse. He's now about 2 years old. For the past year and a half doctors and nurses on the unit have been aware of his ability. “It's biologically plausible,” Dr Dosa told the BMJ. Cats have keener senses, such as smell, than humans, and Oscar may be sensing something that humans don't. He often sniffs the air around the patients he visits, Dr Dosa noted in his report.
Oscar received an award from a local hospice agency “for his compassionate hospice care.”