Grim Reap Purr: Nursing home feline senses the end

Stephen King, take note. A cat in Rhode Island knows when death is nigh.

NEXT, PLEASE. Oscar the cat on his desk in a nursing home in Rhode Island, where he predicts residents’ deaths with uncanny accuracy. J. Teno/Brown Univ.

Two years ago, the staff of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence adopted a gray-and-white kitten. They named him Oscar and moved him to the third floor of the dementia unit, where he generally keeps to himself.

Soon, though, the staff noticed something odd: Oscar was always hanging around when someone expired.

“There are two cats on the floor,” says David Dosa, a geriatrician for the center and an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University. “One is the friendly cat, and the other one is Oscar, who is sort of unfriendly. [H]e doesn’t go out of his way to be social—except when people are about to die.”

Then, Oscar hops on the bed, nuzzles the dying patient, and purrs, Dosa writes in an essay in the July 26 New England Journal of Medicine. Staff now regard Oscar as a dead-eye sentinel and begin calling family members of whomever the cat befriends.

“He’s had weeks where we’ve had three deaths on the unit and he’s nailed them all,” says Dosa. “And then we’ll have a week or two, or longer, when nobody dies, and he basically just sits by himself.”

Dosa says that in the past year, Oscar has predicted about 25 deaths and missed only one.

“It started as a ‘gee whiz’ kind of thing, but now we count on it,” says Dosa. Rhode Island’s largest hospice organization honored the freaky feline with an award for compassionate care.

Janis Hammer, associate director of the Animal Behavior Institute in Durham, N.C., says that she knows of a cat with similar abilities at a Pennsylvania nursing home. “He would lie on the bed when someone was dying and wouldn’t leave,” says Hammer, who notes that nursing homes often keep animals for pet therapy.

Animal experts say that Oscar might be sniffing the end.

“Cats can smell much better than people,” says Bonnie Beaver, professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University in College Station. “And there certainly is the possibility that when a person nears death, their odors change. [Oscar] may be picking up on that.”

Beaver says that dogs, whose sense of smell is even keener than that of cats, can predict human seizures with uncanny accuracy. Some research suggests that canines can even sniff the signals of prostate cancer in urine.

As for why Oscar can sense impending doom while his companion cat on the same floor can’t, “We’ll probably never know,” says Beaver.

“I guess he helps transition people to the other side,” says Dosa. “Then that’s that, and he goes back to sitting on his desk and minding his own business.”

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine

From the Nature Index

Paid Content