Many facilities for those who are disabled or infirm have become “pet friendly” as a benefit for patients under their care. Known as “therapy animals,” they provide comfort and companionship, allowing for relaxation and sometimes more rapid healing.
Oscar is a therapy cat that was one of six cats adopted in 2005 by the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, RI, a 41-bed unit that treats people with end-stage Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and other illnesses.
Generally aloof and “not a cat that’s friendly to people”, Oscar sometimes hisses at people when he wants to be left alone. But 6 months after his arrival at Steere House, the personnel began to notice a peculiar trait Oscar displayed – he would often chose to nap next to residents who died within several hours of his arrival. It seemed to staff as if Oscar were trying to comfort and provide company to people as they were near death.
Joan Teno, a physician at Steere House, clarified that “it’s not that the cat is consistently there first. But the cat always does manage to make an appearance, and it always seems to be in the last two hours.”
After Oscar accurately predicted 25 deaths, staff started calling family members of residents as soon as they discovered him sleeping next to someone in order to notify them and give them an opportunity to say goodbye before their loved one’s impending death.
Oscar made international headlines in 2007 after the New England Journal of Medicine published an article about him by Steere House geriatrician David Dosa.
Dosa, of Brown University, stated that on one occasion Oscar had curled up on a female patient’s bed, prompting staff to “make calls and set up vigil”. When the family arrived, the grandson asked his mother why the cat was there, and she explained: “He is here to help Grandma get to heaven.” Grandma died an hour later.
Teno and Dosa hypothesized that Oscar is responding to the smell of chemicals released when someone dies or some other odor emitted during death.
CBS News consulted several animal specialists who had various hypotheses, such as that Oscar may be smelling some chemical that’s released just before death and his attendance in rooms with that odor may be a learned behavior. Others have suggested that he’s picking up on the stillness and lack of movement in the room rather than a smell.
A book describing this amazing feline, Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, was published in 2010.