Meet Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and professor who works with patients with dementia in a nursing home called Steere House. Meet Oscar, an antisocial cat who cuddles up with patients who are about to pass away. Understandably, Dosa was very skeptical about Oscar's talent when he first heard about it. However, 5 years later, Dosa and colleagues have totaled about 50 cases when Oscar joined a patient in bed only a few hours before the death of that patient.
When a patient is dying, Oscar is so intent on being present that if he is locked outside of a room, he will sit outside the door and meow until he is let in. Families of patients in Steere House find Oscar's behavior comforting rather than upsetting. In several cases, Oscar has been mentioned in eulogies and obituaries.
But how does Oscar predict death? There are several theories. Most believe it has to do with the smells of certain chemicals that are emitted when a person is dying. Animals have a much more keen sense of smell than humans and can distinguish this. Other theories include that animals may be able to sense sickness or even the shutting down of organs.
Steere House has several other cats in residence, yet none of them exhibit the same talent as Oscar. So why does Oscar find it necessary to be present with patients in their final hours? One theory is that Oscar is simply mimicking the behavior of the nurses. Another suggests it may be as simple as the fact that Oscar enjoys the heated blankets that are placed on dying patients. I personally disagree with the latter opinion. One story is that the nurses tried to place Oscar with a patient whom they believed was within hours of death only to have Oscar run away. If he simply wanted to lie on a heated blanket, he would have stayed. To finish the story, Oscar returned on his own to the still alive patient two days later. As the story goes, the patient did pass away a few hours after Oscar's return.
Despite whatever any one theorizes, we will never know why Oscar likes to be present with dying patients. Many people have labeled Oscar the "furry angel of death". Personally, I don't view Oscar's actions in so morbid a way. Oscar is providing comfort to these people in a time and place where they might otherwise have none. He is a gift to those at Steere House. I wish we could all be so lucky to have something as cute and cuddly as Oscar with us in our final moments. An angel of death? I think not. Maybe just an angel.
Want to know more about Oscar and his amazing talent? Check out the book by Dr. Dosa- Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.