Thursday, July 26, 2007

Don't Fear The Reaper...Fear The Pretty Kitty!

You shouldn't be too worried if Oscar the cat crosses your path. But if he curls up beside you, you may want to call your loved ones. It seems that in Providence, Rhode Island, Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours. His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live. Yikes!

The staff there is so convinced of his ability, they will call family members once he has chosen someone."He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," says Dr. David Dosa. "Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one." Doctors say most of the people who get a visit from the sweet-faced, gray-and-white cat are so ill they probably don't know he's there, so patients aren't aware he's a harbinger of death. Most families are grateful for the advanced warning – although one wanted Oscar out of the room while a family member died. When Oscar was put outside, he paced and meowed his displeasure.

The furry grim reaper was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit which treats people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease and other illnesses. After about six months, the staff noticed Oscar would make his own rounds, just like the doctors and nurses. He'd sniff and observe patients, then sit beside people who would wind up dying in a few hours. Dosa said Oscar seems to take his work seriously and is generally aloof. "This is not a cat that's friendly to people," he said.

Oscar is better at predicting death than the people who work there, said Dr. Joan Teno of Brown University, who treats patients at the nursing home and is an expert on care for the terminally ill. She was convinced of Oscar's talent when he made his 13th correct call. While observing one patient, Teno said she noticed the woman wasn't eating, was breathing with difficulty and that her legs had a bluish tinge, signs that often mean death is near. Oscar wouldn't stay inside the room though, so Teno thought his streak was broken. Instead, it turned out the doctor's prediction was roughly 10 hours too early. Sure enough, during the patient's final two hours, nurses told Teno that Oscar joined the woman at her bedside.

Oscar has proven so accurate, he has got an essay coming out in tomorrow's New England Journal of Medicine and now has his own wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care." Now if only we could find an animal to predict in advance when Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton are going out for a cocktail or 12!