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.”
If family members can’t make it to the nursing home in time, Oscar’s presence offers immeasurable consolation, ensuring that the patient didn’t die alone. “People were taking great comfort in this idea, that this animal was there and might be there when their loved ones eventually pass. He was there when they couldn’t be.”
There’s no hard scientific explanation for Oscar’s gift. Dosa likens it to certain dogs’ ability to detect cancer, by sniffing out ketones, the biochemicals given off by dying cells.
For a second opinion, here’s Manhattan psychotherapist Dr. Laurie Nadel, lifelong cat lover and author of Sixth Sense: Unlocking Your Ultimate Mind Power: “Oscar is reading and responding to very subtle biological changes and energetic shifts that take place when a person dies.”
Of course, put the words “death” and “cat” in the same sentence and the feline haters will come out in droves. There are, sadly, many who have expressed fear and loathing of this feline phenomenon, even going so far as to label Oscar “evil” and “a grim reaper” — as if he’s somehow causing death rather than gently easing the harshness of its eventuality.
Happily, Oscar has plenty of supporters in the media, this reporter included (it goes without saying). The cat has even received praise in newspaper death notices. And now, a best-selling book. “He’s the opposite of evil,” Nadel says. “He’s a soul who’s taken on this assignment: He’s an angel.”
The cat’s dispassionate compassion qualifies him as a four-footed Zen master. “The empathy that Oscar has for people who are about to cross over is a natural ability, and we should look at it as a God-given gift,” Nadel adds. “Buddhists would call him a bodhisattva cat — an enlightened being who helps ease the suffering of others.”
Providence’s Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center specializes in the care of people with severe dementia, so the people in this amazing cat’s ministry are, for the most part, too near death to fear it. For the rest of us who have a tough time accepting death as a natural part of life, Oscar is a kind and generous teacher.
“We are death-phobic in this culture,” Nadel concludes, “and here we have a wonderful opportunity to realize we don’t have to face death alone. Pets are wise, compassionate beings who can bring us comfort when we need it most.”