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Practice Cats 2

Oscar, the cat that predicts death
Buckwheat, from Seattle

the cat that predicts death

Providence, Rhode Island

Oscar, resident cat of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, 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 have reached their final hours.

The home is the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, and the cat is 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 are six cats altogether, and Oscar's domain is the dementia unit; he was named by residents after a well-known American brand of hot dog.

What happens is that if someone is shortly to die, Oscar will snuggle up to them and curl up on their bed. This takes place up to four hours beforehand, but never less than two hours. His predictions have proved so uncannily accurate that when he is found nestled on the bed of a patient, the alarm is raised immediately, relatives are informed and a priest is called. If the person is not yet due to die, however, although Oscar may visit their room he does 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 know, 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 seems even more strange because although he purrs contentedly when close to those with just hours to live, he is otherwise quite aloof and does not normally seem to want much human company.

Oscar the cat patrolling the nursing home - Steere House, Providence, RI 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 have died feel that he makes 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.'

Oscar the cat - Steere House, Providence, RI Of course, the big question is: what's going on, and how does Oscar know so accurately when death is imminent? The matter has been aired even in the august pages of the New England Journal of Medicine — but of course no one knows for certain what the answer is. Animals are especially sensitive to a whole range of cues that humans are not aware of, and the cat's sensitive nose could be 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 comes form the 'official witch' of Salem, Massachusetts, who believes Oscar is acting as a 'familiar' and is somehow in psychic communication with the dying patients. 'He knows they are going to die because he picks up on their brainwaves,' she says. '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 has become part of a soothing ritual, and makes the room feel more like a homely setting. And he does not leave the patient the minute they die; he waits for the undertaker. It has become a tradition that those who have cared for the person form a little procession in his or her honour and accompany the corpse out of the unit. Oscar escorts the final procession to the door of the unit and watches it leave.

Two CBS News Online news reports from 2007 have staff interviews and each includes different footage of Oscar: 26 July and 27 July.

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.


of Seattle

While Oscar of Rhode Island (above) has become famous for his activities and now even has a book written about him, it is not so well known that there's a cat performing similar duties on the other side of the USA, in the west-coast city of Seattle.

Buckwheat, of the Providence Mount St Vincent hospice, Seattle Buckwheat is a red tabby who 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 is not known, but in 2010 he was thought to be around 13 years old.

Like Oscar, Buckwheat seems to know when a resident is close to death. He does 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 remains until the mortician arrives. Care-home staff believe that his presence is more effective than morphine in calming the patient.

Sceptical people might think that the cat is just seeking a warm body to snuggle up to, but hospice staff think there is rather more to it, as Buckwheat has correctly predicted more than 30 deaths. It might be thought that dying people would want to avoid his attention, but that doesn't seem to happen; he has been described not as a grim reaper, but a 'furry little angel'.

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Our featured feline at the head of the page is Socks, pictured in 2003 surveying his 'estate' in the early morning sunshine. Affectionately known as Soxy, he blossomed from a thin and hungry stray into a substantial and handsome cat who loved life and company, and his gentle ways endeared him to many friends. He is now no longer with us, but you can read more from his human companion here.

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