How a nursing home cat had the unusual ability of predicting death within the next hours

You may remember Oscar. He is quite famous (actually very famous). He’s a fluffy, grey-and-white brindled cat who was adopted by a nursing home in Providence, Rhode Island, USA in 2005 as a kitten. He resided in the dementia unit of the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre. Is Oscar still alive? Please leave a comment. The centre treats people with various illnesses associated with old age including dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Oscar. Photos: Left: Stew Milne/AP. Right: unattributed.
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Within a very short space of time doctors and nurses noticed that Oscar would make his rounds sniffing patients and observing them carefully. Oscar would sometimes sniff the person and then go away. He’d then come back and sit with the person who would die soon afterwards.

On one occasion, he made his 13th correct prediction of imminent death. The patient in question, a female, had stopped eating and had difficulty breathing. A sign for humans that death was imminent was that her legs had taken on a bluish tinge.

Oscar was unconcerned about this and did not stick around which bemused the staff because they thought that the lady in question was about to die. They thought that Oscar had failed to make his usual prediction. However, 10 hours later Oscar reappeared at the woman’s bedside. She was dead within two hours which proved that Oscar’s skills were more precise than the medical staff’s.

At the age of two, Oscar had predicted the deaths of 25 residents. He wasn’t seen as the bringer of doom and gloom but a cat who could be relied upon to assist the patients and relatives by preparing them for death. After the patient had died Oscar remained with the body until the undertaker arrived.

When Oscar was refused entry to a room where a patient was dying, he remain outside pacing up and down and meowing. He made a lot of fuss and had to be removed from the unit.

How did he do it?

The big question was how did he do it? He was the subject of a study published in the New England Journal Of Medicine. David Dosa was involved in the research. He agreed that Oscar understood when patients were about to die. Various theories were put forward one of which included the fact that cats are very good at observing routines and events that take place before them and therefore able to match up the death of a patient with those events.

However, the most likely reason is Oscar’s ability to detect the scent emitted by the body of a person who is approaching death due to hormonal and chemical changes within their body. These scents are imperceptible to humans but cats and dogs are able to detect them. In fact, dogs are far more able than cats in this regard which is why they play an important role in detecting, for example, drugs or money at airports and blood at crime scenes. Can dogs detect the Covid-19 virus in people? They are finding out as I type this. It may be a way of testing infected people.

The last question is why Oscar stayed at the dying patient’s side after death. Perhaps the common sense reason is the correct one, namely, that he wanted to comfort them as they left this world and was not completely sure as to the exact moment of passing. You might think that that is anthropomorphising domestic cats but I think not. There are countless examples of domestic cats protecting and comforting people in their homes, often infants with whom they can form a strong bond.


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