July 27, 2007 -- Oscar the cat has a special gift. A gift that is even stumping scientists.
He spends most of his time like any other cat: sleeping, eating and roaming the halls, but to the residents of the Rhode Island nursing home where Oscar lives, he is no ordinary cat. The 2-year-old feline was adopted as a kitten and grew up in a third-floor dementia unit at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence.
"Oscar has this special gift that he seems to share with everyone," Jack McCullough said.
McCullough lost his mother and his aunt, who were both living at the nursing home. McCullough said Oscar provided comfort through those last difficult hours.
In fact, it appears the cat has a unique talent. Doctors say Oscar can signal to them that a patient is about to die.
"If he's there a half-hour, an hour, generally we start to pick up that perhaps this is a terminal phase. Every time a patient has died, Oscar has presided," said David Dosa, a geriatrician with Brown University.
In two years, Oscar has "predicted" 25 deaths at the home. Doctors go as far as saying Oscar has never been wrong. He has a routine: He seeks out only those patients who are mere hours away from death, jumps on their beds, curls up next to them and purrs all the while.
"I tried to pick him up and bring him on the bed a couple of times when she was very ill, and he wouldn't stay," McCullough said. "And then the morning they called me to say my mother was actually passing away I got there and Oscar was curled up on the bed, purring and laying next to her."
Animal behavior experts suggest Oscar may be picking up subtle cues.
"There are progressive changes: circulation slowing down, metabolism changes. … What's the cat picking up on? Something we cannot see that we're not appreciating. It's not magical. It's just to do with their superior senses," said Dr. Nicholas Dodman of the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine.
Whatever the reason, the staff views him as a gift, and families are grateful that Oscar's gentle warning gives them time to come to their loved one's bedside and a chance to say goodbye.
Doctors at the hospital say that a visit from Oscar doesn't seem to inspire fear in the patients — the people he sits with as they die are unaware of his presence.