Saturday, January 30, 2010

Animal Intuition: Oscar, The Cat

In this July 23, 2007 file photo, Oscar, a hospice cat with an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, walks past an activity room at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, R.I. Dr. David Dosa profiles Oscar in a book, 'Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat.' Photo courtesy: The Associated Press/Stew Milne, File)

Oscar the cat has become quite a celebrity despite his rough-looking appearance and disdainful attitude. He has had a book written about him along with various articles in magazines and on the web; and, even one in a medical journal. Oscar is no one’s cat - he has been known to turn up his nose and walk away when offered a little affection.

Oscar’s story begins in 2005 when the staff of a nursing home adopted him. The medium-haired cat with a gray and brown back and white belly was chosen to be the final touch in making Steere House a home. It was supposed to be Oscar’s job to play with visiting children; and, provide a calming, distraction for visitors and personnel alike.

However, Oscar had other plans. He knew he had bigger work to do. He had a job to perform, a role to play at this facility; and, nothing was going to stop him. In time, Oscar’s stellar performance and record of excellence caused him to become a trusted and valued member of the staff at Steere House.

So, what role does this rescue cat play that has allowed him to become a valued member of the medical team at Steere Home?

It took about a year for his gift to be recognized; but, eventually the staff noticed Oscar’s strange behaviour. He would spend his days and nights pacing from room to room at regular intervals. The doctors at the nursing home had their rounds and Oscar had his.

At each room he would stop, look at the patient(s), sniff the air and move on to the next room. He very rarely entered the rooms – except when the patient inside was about to die. Once a patient had only a few hours to live, Oscar would jump onto their bed and lay beside them in a silent vigil.

Oscar is so accurate that the staff know it’s time to alert family members to the imminent passing of their loved one once Oscar stretches out on the bed beside the patient. Usually, the patient is so ill they have no idea that Oscar is there; however, if kept outside the room of a dying patient, Oscar will cry while scratching at the door and walls until he is let in to do his job.

Once the staff thought Oscar’s amazing streak of prophecy had come to an end when they placed him on the bed of a critically ill patient and he wouldn’t stay. Oscar jumped to the floor and left the room. Staff were confused. What had happened to Oscar's uncanny ability?

The patient actually rallied and survived another two days. When the end came, Oscar needed no reminders to take up his place beside the patient for the final few hours. In this case, the medical profession was wrong; Oscar, the cat, was right.

Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and professor at Brown University, is the doctor who wrote the book “Making Rounds With Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat”. He works on the third floor of Steere House which treats patients with severe dementia. Once patients get to Steere House they may already be too ill to speak or recognize friends, spouses and loved ones. Many will spend their last days fluctuating between the past and the present.

At first, Dr. Dosa thought Oscar might spook out the families with his strange talent. Oscar had become a semi-celebrity thanks to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine submitted by Dr. Dosa himself. To his surprise, the families embraced Oscar and even praised his work in newspaper obituaries and eulogies.

"People actually were taking great comfort in this idea, that this animal was there and might be there when their loved ones eventually pass," Dosa said. "He was there when they couldn't be."

"Maybe they're seeing what they want to see," he said, "but what they're seeing is a comfort to them in a real difficult time in their lives."

Dr. Dosa theorizes that Oscar may be able to detect odours given off by dying cells that humans can’t detect. No one knows whether there is a distinct odour to dying that animals can detect; but, logic would say there is. Dogs have been trained to detect drugs, cadavers, and even cancer just using their incredible sense of smell. Cats have a similarly acute sense of smell. Perhaps Oscar really can smell death.

Even if the mystery of how Oscar always knows when death is just hours away is dispelled, nothing explains why this one-time stray chooses to keep vigil with the dying until they eventually pass over. One thing is certain, as long as Oscar lives, no one at Steere House will ever die alone.

Via RealClear Politics

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