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Healthy Cats

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Cat's 'Sixth Sense': Predicting Death?

Nursing Home Cat Named Oscar Seems to Know When Death Is Near
WebMD Pet Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

July 25, 2007 -- Predicting the death of a patient, even an elderly, demented one, is an inexact science, even for a doctor with decades of medical experience.

But a cat in a Providence, R.I., nursing home, an animal shelter refugee named Oscar, seems to have a sixth sense about when residents in the home's advanced dementia unit are about to pass away. And his actions can sometimes help alert the staff to notify family members in time for them to get to the nursing home to tell their loved ones goodbye.

When he senses their time is near, Oscar goes to the room, jumps onto the bed, curls up next to the patient, and purrs. The 2-year-old cat provides welcome company for grieving family members and staff keeping their bedside vigil; sometimes he fills in for family members who haven't yet arrived at the bedside.

So far, Oscar has "presided over" the deaths of more than 25 residents in the advanced dementia unit of the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Although the story sounds far-fetched, David M. Dosa, MD, MPH, a geriatrician who cares for patients at the nursing home, thought it was time the story of Oscar was heard.

On a whim, he wrote an essay about Oscar and submitted it to The New England Journal of Medicine, known more for its scientific reports on chemotherapy regimens, drug reactions, infections, and heart defects than reports on feline behavior.

"I was quite surprised they agreed to publish it," he tells WebMD. "It is not usually the type of article they will publish." The saga of Oscar, complete with his photo, is in the July 26 issue of the journal.

From Shelter Resident to Star

Oscar's been living at Steere House since he was a young kitten and staff members bailed him out of a nearby animal shelter. "I first heard about him from the nurses on the unit," says Dosa, also a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Providence, R.I. "It came to light that he was spending time with patients as they were becoming terminal."

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