In a rehabilitation center in Providence, Rode Island there is a cat named Oscar.
While almost everyone loves our furry feline friends (as one glance at the internet can tell us), reactions to Oscar are a bit different. Unfortunately for him, many of the patients at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation center turn the other way and run as fast as their bad hips can take them when Oscar crosses their path. You see, between the years of 2005 – 2010, Oscar the cat had accurately predicted so many deaths of the residents at the Steere House, that little Oscar has been deemed the angel of death. So far he’s got a reported 50 patient deaths under his collar.
Oscar’s past isn’t quite as interesting as his present. He was brought to Steere House as a kitten, adopted from the local animal shelter, and given a place to live on the third floor of the hospital, the area housing the end stage dementia patients. He was one of six cats adopted at that particular time, as Steere House strives to be a pet friendly environment, bringing comfort to the facility’s many patients through cuddly animals.
But after many months of daily interaction with Oscar, the doctors and nurses began to notice a rather strange coincidence. Oscar, much like the staff, would do his daily rounds visiting the patients, sniffing, sleeping and cuddling with many of them, not unlike any other fickle feline. Where things get a little weird, however, are in the patients he chose to visit. Many of those patients would just so happen to die within a two hour time span after visiting with him. Oscar, it would seem, was predicting their deaths, and staying to bring comfort to those patients in their final few hours.
One day Oscar visited a woman who had a very severe blood clot in her leg, wrapping himself around her cold limb and staying by her side until she passed away. In another instance, when the doctors at Steere believed Oscar had ended his daily rounds of moseying throughout the hospital, the cat returned hours later to one particular patient and lay with him until the he died.
Oscar’s “gift” was thrust into public attention in 2007 when he appeared in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, written by David Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Brown University. In it, he describes Oscar not as a friendly cat, but as a temperamental animal who saves his affection for the last days of one’s life:
In the distance, a resident approaches. It is Mrs. P., who has been living on the dementia unit’s third floor for 3 years now. She has long forgotten her family, even though they visit her almost daily. Moderately disheveled after eating her lunch, half of which she now wears on her shirt, Mrs. P. is taking one of her many aimless strolls to nowhere. She glides toward Oscar, pushing her walker and muttering to herself with complete disregard for her surroundings. Perturbed, Oscar watches her carefully and, as she walks by, lets out a gentle hiss, a rattlesnake-like warning that says “leave me alone.” She passes him without a glance and continues down the hallway. Oscar is relieved. It is not yet Mrs. P.’s time, and he wants nothing to do with her.
There are many who have tried to put some science into Oscar’s apparently incredible abilities, and one particular theory is that he may be picking up on some of the chemicals released when a body has begun going through the stages of death.
Dr. Jill Goldman, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Laguna Beach, California, offered up the interesting idea that Oscar’s predictions may, in fact, only be a learned behavior. She stated that, “There has been ample opportunity for him [Oscar] to make an association between ‘that’ smell [and death]“. So is it possible then that Oscar has only just learned to read the signs along the highway to he–err..death?
Another theory given by animal behaviorist Dr. Daniel Estep, is that Oscar may, in fact ,only be recognizing the patients lack of movement and interpreting it as illness, as cats can often sense when their owners are sick.
There has of course been just as much controversy surrounding Oscar and his grim talent. Many skeptics believe Oscar’s “gifts” are no more than sensationalism, exaggerated by Doctor Dosa, who was writing a book about his experiences with Oscar at the time. Many disbelievers describe that the little evidence Dr. Dosa has given to be nothing more than anecdotal, claiming that not once in his book does he give any instances of Oscar being wrong. He also makes no mention of instances when nurses at Steere House would bring Oscar into the rooms of dying patients to test out the theory, only to find Oscar to be totally disinterested in the subject.
The best way to make a determination about Oscars supposed special abilities would be to allow independent researchers to investigate the claims that Oscar has any special powers. To date, this request has yet to be answered.
Regardless of what you believe, it is hard to deny that the story of Oscar, the death predicting cat isn’t an entirely fascinating, if somewhat morbid tale. I believe Oscar’s supposed abilities say something quite profound about the bond between human and pet, in that Oscar could be there to provide comfort to the dying and their loved ones in the last hours of their time together. Perhaps, in a way, he is as much of a caretaker as the doctors, and his presence isn’t so much about predicting death, as it is about making the experience a less frightening process for all those involved.