Making the Rounds with Oscar the Cat

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."