Hospice cat 'predicted' death, snuggling up to nursing home residents hours before they died
Staff would call residents' family members in as soon as they saw Oscar get cuddly.
What if a cat could predict when someone was going to die?
That's exactly what Oscar the therapy cat became known for at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. In fact, geriatrician and Brown University health researcher Dr. David Dosa, who worked with Steere House patients and witnessed Oscar in action, even wrote a book about the fluffy piebald cat's extraordinary ability.
Dr. Dosa told Crossroad Hospice that when Oscar came to Steere House in 2005, he wasn't particularly friendly with the residents. "Oscar was initially sort of a very scared cat,” he said. “He wouldn’t really like to come out. He would keep to himself. Often times you’d find him in the supply closet or under a bed somewhere."
But once in a while, Oscar would home in on a specific patient, visiting with them in their room and even cuddling up to them in bed. Cats are known to be finicky, so that kind of change in behavior wouldn't be so unusual, but soon staff noticed a pattern emerging.
"We would eventually find out after he did this several times that the people he was staying with were usually the next ones to go," shared Dr. Dosa. "One death occurred, then two deaths and ultimately he hit about 20 or 30 deaths in a row at which point everybody started to say, ‘Wow, this is something quite unique.’”
Oscar's behavior within hours of someone's death was so accurately predictive, staff started calling in the family members of residents as soon as they noticed the cat starting to get friendly and cuddly with them.
Dr. Dosa described what Oscar's behavior looked like in a video in 2010.
"When Oscar makes his rounds, he walks around the unit checking in on the 40-some patients on the floor," he said. "He only stays with patients if they really are at the end of life. He will come into a room, he has been known to jump on the windowsill and sit there for hours on end. Occasionally, he will jump on the bed and curl up to a patient, and he will be there until the very end."
The staff were all a bit skeptical at first. As Dr. Dosa shared, "It's not something that you see every day, and this was a pretty unremarkable acat in every other capacity."
But even a family member of a residents who died with Oscar by their side offered a perspective on Oscar's unique ability: "It’s not that we trusted the cat more than the nurse. Not, exactly. It was … well, there was just something about Oscar. He seemed so convinced of what he was doing. He was so clear in his intention and his dedication.'"
The big question is, of course: How did Oscar know?
"I think that ultimately your guess is as good as mine,” Dr. Dosa told Crossroad Hospice in 2016. “It [could be] likely that he’s responding to some smell when cells start to break down.”
Research shows that both cats and dogs have the ability to smell illness and disease in humans, and it's possible that Oscar had a particularly keen nose for chemical changes during the death process. Whatever it was, it compelled him to offer his companionship during someone's dying hours.
Oscar passed away himself in 2022 after comforting dying residents at Steere House for 17 years. Read more about him and his abilities in "Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat" by David Dosa, M.D.
"Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat" by David Dosa, M.D.