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The story of Oscar the “psychic” cat first emerged in 2007, but Oscar has continued to fascinate the staff at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, over the years, and to comfort grieving families.
Oscar lives at the rehabilitation center and when he visits and stays with a patient, it’s a sure enough sign that patient will die within a few hours that the nurses call the patient’s loved ones to come for his or her final moments.
You might think a cat whose presence heralds death would be feared, but Oscar is regarded as a comforting companion. A plaque given to the center from a local hospice agency reads: “For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat.”
He’s been praised in eulogies and obituaries, Dr. David Dosa told the Associated Press in 2010. “Maybe they’re seeing what they want to see,” he said, “but what they’re seeing is a comfort to them in a real difficult time in their lives.”
Dr. Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor at Brown University, first made Oscar famous in an article he published in the New England Journal of Medicine, titled “A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat.” Dr. Dosa also wrote a book about the cat in 2010, titled “Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.”
The medical journal article was not a scientific study of Oscar’s abilities, but rather a narrative of Oscar’s actions.
“The door [to the patient’s room] is closed, so Oscar sits and waits. He has important business here,” Dr. Dosa wrote. “He surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and her breathing is labored. … He sniffs the air, gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly leaves the room. Not today.”
Dr. Dosa continued: “Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.”
After seeing Oscar staying with Mrs. K, the nurse called Mrs. K’s family to come to the center. She also called a priest to perform the last rites. The family stood around Mrs. K, and one of her relatives asked what the cat was doing there. Another replied that the cat was there to help Mrs. K to heaven. Half an hour later, Mrs. K died.
“With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices,” Dr. Dosa wrote.
Dr. Joan Teno, a professor of community health at Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University in Providence who cares for Steere House residents, told The Register: “It’s not that the cat is consistently there first. But the cat always does manage to make an appearance, and it always seems to be in the last two hours.” She said, “I don’t think this is a psychic cat. I think there’s probably a biochemical explanation.”
Joe Nickell of the Skeptical Inquirer quoted a possible explanation from Dr. Dosa’s book: “As cells die, carbohydrates are degraded into many oxygenated compounds, including various types of ketones—chemical mixtures known for their fragrant aroma…. Could it be that Oscar simply smells an elevated level of a chemical compound released prior to death? It is certainly clear that animals have a refined sense of smell that goes well beyond that of the ordinary human.”
Dosa added, however: “I like to think of Oscar as more than a ketone early-warning system.”