In 2007, my “Pets” column for the New York Post celebrated a cat named Oscar, subject of an eye-opening article in the New England Journal of Medicine. While I firmly believe that no cat is ordinary, Oscar is less ordinary than most, and his legend is spreading around the globe. This now five-year-old tortoiseshell tabby with white markings resides in a Rhode Island nursing home, and can sense when patients are about to die. Oscar the cat stays by their side, keeping them company until they pass.
Oscar spends all day pacing from room to room of the facility. Not exactly what you’d call a cuddlepuss, he’s more the aloof type, and rarely spends time with patients other than those who only have hours to live. But keep him outside the room of a dying patient, and Oscar will scratch at the door until he’s let in.
Now, Oscar is the deserving subject of a best-selling new book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. The author, Dr. David Dosa, an MD and Brown University prof who admits to having previously suffered from a “strong aversion to cats,” has evidently been cured after years of witnessing his four-footed colleague in action.
Nurses once placed Oscar on the bed of a patient they thought was close, but Oscar “charged out,” Dosa recalls, and went to sit beside a patient in a different room instead. The patient Oscar chose to sit with died that evening; the other patient lived for two more days.
Just by instinct, and not intending to show anybody up, Oscar the cat showed better judgment than the nursing home’s trained, professional, human medical staff. Five years of records reveal that Oscar has rarely been wrong. The nursing home keeps five other adopted felines, but Oscar is the only one with this remarkable gift.
Oscar’s impressive track record means that nursing home staff have time to contact family members as soon as the cat jumps on their loved one’s bed, so they can alert them about a patient’s imminent passing. Talk about a service animal! What’s more, Oscar may lie down on the job, but he’s always fully present and alert. “It’s not like he dawdles,” Dosa writes. “He’ll slip out for two minutes, grab some kibble and then he’s back at the patient’s side. It’s like he’s literally on a vigil.”