oscar.jpgI’d always always pretty much assumed that the Angel of Death would be a woman but I had no idea that it was a cat…

Meet Oscar – a two year old stray who was adopted by the the Dementia Unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, RI.

He’s an aloof animal who tends to shun human companionship unless they’re about to die. It seems that Oscar possesses the amazing ability to predict a patient’s death within four hours of the occurrence. Or, so says an article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine (Article requires a subscription so go here instead)

When Oscar senses the presence of the Grim Reaper he sniffs out the intended patient and curls up next to him on the bed. With rare exception, the patient usually dies within four hours.

He’s so good at predicting the casting off of the mortal coil that nurses now routinely call patients’ families when Oscar makes his appearance.

Sometimes he even fools the experts:

She [Dr. Joan Teno] 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.

So how does he do it? Well, obviously, no one knows for sure but there is speculation:

No one’s certain if Oscar’s behavior is scientifically significant or points to a cause. Teno wonders if the cat notices telltale scents or reads something into the behavior of the nurses who raised him.

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioral clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa’s article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it’s also possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.

So is he a creature of mercy who longs to provide comfort and companionship to his human keepers during their last minutes on earth – or is it more a matter of self-centered pleasure?

I have no clue but, judging by the normal behavior of cats, smart money chooses the latter option.