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Residents at The Steere nursing home in Providence, R.I. may think twice before saying, "Here kitty, kitty," once they learn Oscar the rescue kitty's main occupation: predicting patient deaths. Once Oscar, an otherwise aloof, if not misanthropic, cat snuggles up beside someone, it usually means that person has less than four hours to live. The two-year-old grey and white cat, which was adopted as a kitten by staff, began to march up and down the facility's hallways at the age of around 6 months. He has been on patrol ever since.
According to David Dosa, MD, a geriatrics specialist and an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University, "Oscar has successfully predicted 25 deaths.... He missed only one. And in that instance, two deaths occurred simultaneously."
No one is able to definitively say how Oscar is making his predictions. Many in the scientific and cat communities suspect that Oscar detects physiological changes in people, which tip him off that they are nearing death. Others in these same groups suggest the possibility that Oscar is not making predictions at all, but is instead taking his cue from the staff's actions. Still others would like to believe that Oscar has a sixth sense. While the theories may differ, one of the known primary senses might be at work.
Can Oscar Smell Illness and Death?
Certified Cat Behavior Consultant Marilyn Krieger of The Cat Couch, who is based in the San Francisco area, says, "I really firmly believe that cats can detect physiological changes that occur in a person." She explains that cats, as predators, "need to be able to detect when another animal is sick. This ability is part of their nature, part of their survival. They don't want to get harmed." While Krieger speculates that cats may be using smell, she is quick to state that she doesn't know for certain how cats detect these changes.
Dosa also believes that an acute sense of smell may be a factor in Oscar's ability. Other animals, he points out, can detect physiological changes in people. For example, he mentions that studies have shown dogs can smell cancer, while certain trained therapy dogs can predict when an epileptic is about to have a seizure. Anecdotally, some dog owners have claimed that their dogs can predict deaths, but these statements have not been verified, and no dog seems to match Oscar's impressive track record.
Could Oscar Be a Copycat?
In response to the attention surrounding Oscar, scientists and animal behaviorists have suggested the possibility that Oscar is observing the staff members' behavior and following their lead. But given that Oscar otherwise ignores the staff, this explanation seems unlikely. "This cat is not that friendly. He keeps to himself and sits in the window. This is not a cat that walks between people's legs purring," says Doctor Dosa.
Nor does it seem that Oscar could be picking up his cues from the residents, none of whom he visits until they are nearing death's door. According to Doctor Dosa, when it is not quite yet someone's time, Oscar "quickly figures it out and leaves."
Krieger has not directly studied Oscar, but she does suggest that staff members and others may be conditioning the furry male feline to continue his sitting vigils through positive reinforcement. "This cat has probably been rewarded for doing this through attention or petting, which would perpetuate the behavior."
Does Oscar Have a Sixth Sense?
There is the possibility -- refuted by the scientific community but embraced by many cat lovers -- that cats simply have a sixth sense when it comes to matters of life and death. A man of science, Doctor Dosa says he has "great respect for Oscar," but he seems in no way ready to declare Oscar psychic. However, he does say, "It is a very spiritual kind of thing to watch a cat provide comfort to people who might otherwise die alone."
That Oscar somehow knows when people are going to die is remarkable, but it is what he chooses to do with this information that is truly compelling -- taking it upon himself to be present and to provide comfort in people's final moments. For Oscar's exemplary service, a local hospice agency went so far as to honor him with a plaque for "his compassionate hospice care."
is the author of The Complete Cat Organizer and The Complete Dog Organizer, as well as more than eleven City Dog guidebooks, which cover dog-centric resources in numerous cities across the country.