For more than a decade, Oscar the cat has roamed the third-floor corridors of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Like most felines, he enjoys sunbathing and carries himself in that especially aloof way that only cats seem to have mastered. But Oscar also has a more unusual talent—the ability to sense death.
During his tenure at the center, Oscar has "predicted" the passing of dozens of residents. In a person's final hours, Oscar can be seen curled up beside them, purring contentedly until they pass. On the rare occasions when he is denied entrance to the room of a dying individual, the faithful feline will pace diligently in front of the door.
In an essay about Oscar, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, David Dosa, a geriatrician and professor at Brown University Medical School writes: "His [Oscar's] mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone."
Animals can sense human health problems
Oscar was brought to Steere House from a local shelter as part of an animal therapy program, back in 2005. But while his life may have started on the streets, his legacy would eventually be immortalized in a book written by Dosa entitled "Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat."
In an interview on the Steere House website, Dosa admits to initially viewing Oscar's seemingly-supernatural talents with skepticism. "I suppose my ego balked at the notion that a cat could have a better sense of knowing when my patient might die than I do," he says. But Oscar's faultless track record soon became impossible to deny.
Dosa outlines a few potential explanations for Oscar's uncanny sixth-sense. The first: pheromones—distinctive smells that are released by dying cells and could potentially be alerting the tabby to a resident's impending passage. It could also be that Oscar is simply mimicking the actions of the professional and family caregivers at Steere House who provide care to the sick and dying.
But Oscar isn't the only animal to demonstrate an uncanny talent for detecting changes in a person's health. Beyond the simple pleasures of companionship, animals have also demonstrated the ability to do everything from detect cancer by sniffing a person's breath to predicting dangerous seizures. Dosa says he's constantly amazed by the strength of the human-animal bond. "They truly do seem to have a sixth sense about knowing when we need them the most," he says.
Comforting people who are close to death
Bringing in animals to provide comfort and companionship to the aging, ill and dying is rapidly becoming common practice in the elder care community, and evidence (both scientific and anecdotal) of the benefits of animal therapy continues to mount. "Even for those with the severest forms of dementia, the presence of animals reduces agitation and symptoms of depression," says Dosa.
Animal therapy can also be especially beneficial for those who are near death. Animals don't have to fret over how to behave or what to say to someone who is dying, they can help ease a person's passing simply be being with them in their final days, hours or minutes.
Indeed, some hospice care companies have begun to implement pet therapy programs into their care plans. "Paw Pals" is a program started by VITAS Healthcare that enables people who are receiving hospice care to be visited by specially-trained service animals and their owners. Even if the visits are brief, these animals can still have a profound impact on an individual who is near death. One Paw Pals volunteer describes an encounter that perfectly encapsulates this: "The woman immediately put her arms around Pogo [my Shetland sheepdog] and held him for 15 minutes or more. She passed away the next day. Her husband later said that it was the first time in three years he had seen her smile. He has that memory of her smiling."