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Oscar - the feline grim reaper?


OSCAR, a cat on duty at a New England nursing home has the job of providing comfort and companionship to the patients undergoing care. But it turns out that Oscar also has an uncanny ability to read people in a very strange way. In short, he has been seen as something of a furry Grim reaper, as he can predict when people are about to die.

His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

‘He doesn’t make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die,’ said Dr. David Dosa. He described the phenomenon in an article in a recent issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

‘Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one,’ said Dr Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.

The two-year-old cat was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre. The facility treats people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses.

After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He’d sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would usually die a few hours later.

Doing His Rounds

Dr Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously whilst ‘doing his rounds’ and is generally aloof. ‘This is not a cat that’s friendly to people,’ he said.

Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill.
She was convinced of Oscar’s talent when he made his 13th correct prediction. While observing one patient, Dr Teno said she noticed the woman wasn’t eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near.

Oscar wouldn’t stay inside the room though, so Dr Teno thought his streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor’s prediction was roughly ten hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient’s final two hours, nurses told Dr Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.
Harbinger Of Death

Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the tabby cat are so ill they probably don’t know he’s there, so patients aren’t aware he’s a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advanced warning, although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. If Oscar is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.

There have been many theories put forward as to how Oscar predicts that patients are about to die, and whether it is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Dr Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents or senses something ion the body language and behaviour of the nurses who raised him.

Many pet owners – especially those who own cats – will attest to their pets’ almost psychic ability to tune in to their moods, and there are many anecdotal accounts from round the world of pets knowing when a much-loved owner is going to die, or behaving in a distressed way if the death occurs elsewhere.

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioural clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa’s article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it’s also possible his behaviour could be driven by self-cantered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.
Nursing home staffers aren’t concerned with explaining Oscar, so long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the dying.

Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his ‘compassionate hospice care.’
* Do YOU think Oscar is a feline Grim Reaper? Or do you have any similar accounts relating to such behaviour in cats and other pets? If so, drop us a line at the usual Editorial address or e-mail. Ouija Board messages may not be accessed every day, however.