When Lovers, Friends, Health, and All Hope Have Vanished, Oscar Is There for Those Who Have No One and Nothing Left
"Oscar's peculiar ability appears to be as real as it is mysterious, and he continues to hold vigils over departing patients."
-- Dr. David Dosa
It happens sooner or later to everyone who remains intoxicated with life for too long. The vibrancy and enthusiasm of youth give way to the infirmities and despair of old age. Cats and lovers die and the world changes so rapidly that it is barely recognizable anymore.
Finally, all that remains do be done is to take that last journey and even that is an especially wearisome task for those who have lost everything.
Thankfully, the terminally ill at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, have Oscar.
To the consternation of the members of the scientific community, he is able to more accurately predict the arrival of the Grim Reaper than they are and, having just celebrated his fifth birthday, is still going strong. (See photo above.)
The gray and white prophet of death was catapulted to international stardom in July of 2007 when Dr. David Dosa of Brown University chronicled his uncanny ability for the New England Journal of Medicine in an article entitled "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat." (See Cat Defender post of July 30, 2007 entitled "A Visit from Oscar the Cat Means the Grim Reaper Cannot Be Far Behind for the Terminally Ill at Rhode Island Nursing Home.")
In February of this year, Dosa expanded that article into a new tome entitled Making Rounds with Oscar. The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. Published by Disney's Hyperion, as of today it was ranked at number 1,583 on Amazon's bestseller list. (See book jacket below.)
The book does not break any new ground other than to update the number of deaths correctly predicted by Oscar from twenty-five to fifty. Dosa does admit, however, that when it comes to predicting the end even Oscar is not always on the money all of the time.
Adopted from a shelter in 2005, Oscar at first was standoffish and kept pretty much to himself. After about six months at Steere House, which specializes in the care of elderly patients suffering from dementia, he inexplicably started entering the rooms of patients, hopping in their beds, and snuggling up with them.
While there certainly was not anything out of the ordinary about that, staff at the nursing home soon noticed that those patients befriended by Oscar all died within a few hours of his arrival. Once they had passed on he discreetly would exit their rooms with no more fanfare than he had arrived with earlier.
Even more telling, Oscar never has shown an inkling of interest in either healthy or sick patients. Throughout his tenure at Steere House his sole preoccupation has been with those whose ultimate destination is, to quote Hamlet, that "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns."
"This is a cat that knows death," Dosa told The Boston Globe on July 26, 2007. (See "With a Purr, Death Comes on Little Cat Feet.") "His instincts that a patient is to die are often more acute than the instincts of medical professionals." (See photo below of him and Oscar.)
Various theories have been put forward over the years in an effort to make sense of Oscar's special skill. The most convincing of which maintains that he is able to smell subtle metabolic changes in patients that are about to die. C'est-a-dire, death has its own peculiar smell that eludes humans but not Oscar's highly-developed sensory perception.
If Elijah in Tampa can detect low blood sugar levels by sniffing a person's breath and Tiger in Calgary is able to detect cancerous growths, it is not inconceivable that Oscar is able to smell death. (See Cat Defender posts of May 18, 2009 and April 11, 2009 entitled, respectively, "Elijah Teaches Himself How to Detect Low Blood Sugar Levels in His Guardian and Others" and "Tiger Saves His Owner's Life by Alerting Him to a Cancerous Growth on His Left Lung.")
Another theory stipulates that Oscar simply is mimicking the behavior of nursing home staffers and thereby wants to comfort the dying. Others contend that he is attracted to the warm blankets, dim lights, soft music, aromatherapy, and stillness that accompanies death.
It also has been suggested that Oscar is drawn to patients that do not move too much and as a consequence are unlikely to give him any trouble. The most logical explanation is that Oscar is psychic but since that sort of thinking is anathema to most scientists it nearly always is rejected out of hand.
Although he certainly is not convinced of its veracity, Dosa is an exception to the rule in that he at least is willing to admit that it is an outside possibility. "Science has taken us a long way in our profession, but we still just scratch the surface," he wrote in an excerpt from his new book that was published in the Daily Mail on February 6th. (See "Meet Oscar, the Cat Who Knows Too Much...") "The rest remains a mystery. Maybe some people just know when their time has come. Some cats, too."
Exactly what cats understand about death has been a source of endless speculation that so far has produced very little hard evidence. On April 20th, Hurriyet of Istanbul posted on its web site a video of a male cat apparently giving a cardiac massage to a female cat that had been run over and killed by a motorist in the Mediterranean port city of Antalya. (See "Sokak Kedisinden Hayat Dersi.")
An unidentified veterinarian contacted by the web site Le Post, a subsidiary of Le Monde, quickly dismissed the notion that the tomcat was attempting to resuscitate his companion. Instead, she argues that he knew that she was beyond all mortal assistance and that his kneading and purring were merely his way of coping with the grief occasioned by her death. (See photo below.)
"A mon avis, mais ca ne reste que mon avis, et je peux me tromper, le chat vivant connait l'animal qui est mort, et l'angoisse de le voir inanime provoque ce ronronnement et petrissage de stress," she told Le Post on April 23rd. (See "Video: un chat fait un massage cardiaque sur un autre chat? Ben voyons.") "Cherche-t-il a apporter du bien etre a l'animal mort, ou a exprimer ainsi sa detresse...mystere!"
It is well understood that kittens knead their mothers breasts in order to stimulate the flow of milk and that their accompanying purring is an expression of their happiness with the result. This behavior also can be witnessed in contented adult cats who sometimes will purr loudly and knead either the blankets or clothing of their caretakers, especially after they have been fed.
What is considerably less appreciated is that cats sometimes knead and purr in reaction to stress and traumatic events in their lives. It is the equivalent of crying in humans.
"De facon plus surprenante, il est frequent de voir un chat subissant un gros stress ou un chat en fin de vie (detresse physique, douleur...) se mettre a ronronner voire a petrir," the vet continued. "L'explication exacte n'est pas connue mais il est coutume de dire que le chat exprime ainsi son desarroi..."
Therefore if this veterinarian is correct in her assertion that cats are able to comprehend death it would not be surprising that Oscar is able to anticipate it, especially in an environment such as Steere House that is literally saturated with it. Cats, after all, are extremely fast learners.
Moreover, cats are far from being the only animals able to anticipate the deaths of others. For example, in May of 2006 a terminally ill nine-year-old cat named Sammy from Bellingham, Washington, was comforted during his final days by deer who appear to have known that the end for him was near. (See photo at the bottom of the page.)
"I truly believe the deer was able to sense that there was something wrong with Sammy and that was why he started licking him, like he was trying to nurture him," Sammy's owner, Margie Scott said at that time. (See Cat Defender post of January 16, 2007 entitled "Dying of Kidney Failure, Nine-Year-Old Cat Named Sammy Is Shown Compassion by an Unexpected Friend.")
Regardless of how he does it, Dosa has seen enough to realize that Oscar's ability is genuine. "Oscar's peculiar ability appears to be as real as it is mysterious, and he continues to hold vigils over departing patients," he wrote in the excerpt from the Daily Mail cited supra.
In the final analysis it really does not make any difference how Oscar does it. As Gore Vidal once pointed out, "It is the spirit of the age to believe that any fact, no matter how suspect, is superior to any imaginative exercise, no matter how true."
Animals should be accepted and respected for what they are and for the beauty and joy that they bring to this world. If more individuals were less self-centered they soon would realize that there is much that they could learn from them, such as an appreciation for the diversity of life, compassion, and their total lack of malice.
As far as members of the scientific community are concerned, however, their only interest in them is exploitation, enslavement and, finally, extermination. (See Cat Defender posts of November 17, 2008 and May 4, 2006 entitled, respectively, "Mr. Green Genes' Coming Out Party Ushers In an Era of Unspeakable Atrocities to Be Committed Against Cats by Cloners and Vivisectors" and "Scientific Community's Use of High-Tech Surveillance Is Aimed at Subjugating, Not Saving, the Animals.")
Not only is his ability real but he takes his job of shepherding dying patients out of this world and into the next one even more seriously than do either Dosa and his colleagues or their families. Whereas they routinely abandon the dying to their own devices, Oscar stays with them until the very end.
"It's not like he dawdles. He'll slip out for two minutes, grab some kibble, and then he's back at the patient's side," Dosa related to the Daily Telegraph on February 1st. (See "Cat Predicts Fifty Deaths in Rhode Island Nursing Home.") "It's like he's literally on a vigil."
His timely intervention also provides the staff with an opportunity to contact a dying person's family. Family members are thus able to see the dying person one last time.
Occasionally, the family of a terminally-ill patient will resent Oscar's presence and demand that he be evicted. On these occasions Oscar demonstrates his displeasure by yowling in protest and pawing at the outside of the patient's door.
Generally speaking, however, most families appreciate Oscar's concern and diligence. "People were actually taking great comfort in this idea, that this animal was there and might be there when their loved ones eventually passed," Dosa added for the Daily Telegraph. "He was there when they couldn't be."
This is doubly true for those patients without families in that Oscar's presence ensures that they are not forced to make that final journey all by their lonesome. Of course, it is conceivable that some of them may be too far gone mentally to even realize that he is with them although perhaps they are able to at least sense his presence.
Patients, loved ones, and staffers at Steere House are indebted to Oscar for the invaluable service that he is providing to humanity. Although the facility currently has five other resident felines, none of them have shown any interest in dying patients.
Dosa therefore has done Oscar a disservice by labeling him as an ordinary cat. Clearly, there is absolutely nothing commonplace about either him or the service that he is providing. He truly is a marvel to be treasured by one and all.
Photos: Daily Mail (Oscar, book jacket, and Dosa with Oscar), netegel.com (Turkish cats), and Margie Scott (Sammy with deer).