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Oscar, the cat that predicts death
Buckwheat, from Seattle
The Cat that Predicted Death
Providence, Rhode Island
During 2007 news was widely reported of a cat in America that seems to have the unusual and slightly macabre talent of knowing when elderly or terminally ill patients in a nursing home had reached their final hours.
The home was the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, and the cat was semi-longhaired, tabby-and-white Oscar. He had been adopted as a small, stray bundle of fur in July 2005 and raised at the home. There were six cats altogether, and Oscar's domain was the dementia unit; he was named by residents after a well-known American brand of hot dog.
What happened was that if someone was shortly to die, Oscar would snuggle up to them and curl up on their bed. This took place up to four hours beforehand, but never less than two hours. His predictions proved so uncannily accurate that when he was found nestled on the bed of a patient, the alarm was raised immediately, relatives were informed and a priest was called. If the person was not yet due to die, however, although Oscar might visit their room he did not stay there.
Up to the time of the news reports he had correctly foreseen 25 deaths, beginning when he was about six months old. As far as staff at the centre knew, the only one he missed was when relatives asked that he be removed from the room. On that occasion Oscar stood outside the door and went into such a frenzy of meowing, caterwauling and scratching at the door that he had to be temporarily taken away from the premises. He was clearly not pleased at being left out. His behaviour seemed even more strange because although he purred contentedly when close to those with just hours to live, he was otherwise quite aloof and did not normally seem to want much human company.
There was even one occasion when Oscar's prediction proved to be more accurate than that of one of the doctors. A patient was showing signs of being close to death, but when the attending nurse was asked whether the cat had been in, she said 'no'. To help Oscar maintain his record, they brought him into the room but after sniffing around he left again. It was not until some 10 hours later that the patient actually did die and, sure enough, Oscar had returned about two hours beforehand and had remained in the room.
Some relatives of those who died felt that he made a positive contribution. One gentleman whose mother and aunt had both died at Steere House home said, 'Oscar's presence gave a sense of completion and contentment. What could be more peaceful than a purring cat? And what sound more beautiful to fill one's ears when leaving life? He brought a special serenity to the room.'
Of course, the big question is: what was going on, and how did Oscar know so accurately when death was imminent? The matter was aired even in the august pages of the New England Journal of Medicine but of course no one knows for certain what the answer was. Animals are especially sensitive to a whole range of cues that humans are not aware of, and the cat's sensitive nose could have been detecting minute chemical or biochemical changes in a body's metabolism that occur shortly before death rather in the way that some dogs can predict a fit in epileptics before the people themselves can sense it.
A different explanation came from the 'official witch' of Salem, Massachusetts, who believed Oscar was acting as a 'familiar' and was somehow in psychic communication with the dying patients. 'He knows they are going to die because he picks up on their brainwaves,' she said. 'He is trying to help them not to heal, but to pass over into the other world.'
Whatever the reason for his behaviour, Oscar's presence became part of a soothing ritual, and made the room feel more like a homely setting. And he did not leave the patient the minute they died; he waited for the undertaker. It became a tradition that those who had cared for the person formed a little procession in his or her honour and accompanied the corpse out of the unit. Oscar escorted the final procession to the door of the unit and watched it leave.
Early in 2010 a book was published entitled Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat, written by Dr David Dosa, who first reported Oscar's unusual abilities. It's published by Hyperion Books and is available from Amazon and the usual sources; see also our review in Feline Folios.
Dr Dosa's original essay about Oscar was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in July 2007: A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat.
Oscar was still carrying out his duties at Steere House, and was around 12 years old. He had probably been present at the deaths of more than 100 people. But four years earlier, in November 2013, Oscar himself had had a close brush with death. He was suffering from a severe allergic reaction and was taken into intensive care, where his heart stopped beating and he actually died for several seconds. Fortunately, quick-thinking vets managed to revive him and he was taken back to the nursing home where he became a patient himself for a while before making a full recovery.
In response to an enquiry early in February 2022, we were pleased to learn that Oscar was still well and 'remaining pretty active'. Very sadly, however, less than a fortnight later his death 'after a short illness' was announced at Facebook by Dr David Dosa at Oscar's page (link below) and also by Steere House:
'It is with sadness we announce that our pet therapy cat, Oscar, has passed away after 17 wonderful years. Oscar served our residents, staff and families, providing comfort and companionship to all. Beloved by our community, he passed with friends quietly, February 22, 2022.'
Dr Dosa remarked that 'Despite his fame, Oscar was just an ordinary cat who was beloved by the staff at Steere House for doing what cats do. Hanging around, getting in the way, and providing companionship to those he lived with on a day-to-day basis.'
While Oscar of Rhode Island (above) became famous for his activities and even had a book written about him, it's not so well known that there was a cat performing similar duties on the other side of the USA, in the west-coast city of Seattle.
Red tabby Buckwheat was donated to the Providence Mount St Vincent nursing and retirement home in the city in about 2004, when the lady he belonged to became ill and could no longer look after him. His exact age was not known, but in 2010 he was thought to be around 13 years old.
Like Oscar, Buckwheat seemed to know when a resident was close to death. He did his best to comfort the person by climbing on the bed, curling up there, nuzzling them and staying with them throughout the dying process. He often remained until the mortician arrived. Care-home staff believed that his presence was more effective than morphine in calming the patient.
Sceptics might think that the cat was just seeking a warm body to snuggle up to, but hospice staff thought there was rather more to it, as Buckwheat had correctly predicted more than 30 deaths. It might be thought that dying people would want to avoid his attention, but that didn't seem to happen; he was described not as a grim reaper, but a 'furry little angel'.
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