Oscar the cat seems to know when elderly people in a nursing home are just a few hours away from death. He curls up beside them, and on more than 25 occasions, the person he visits has died.
So is Oscar a kind of Grim Reaper?
Not necessarily. A story published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests Oscar may be able to smell chemical changes eminating from the flesh of the elderly when their bodies are preparing for death. Why Oscar chooses to sit beside them, or on their laps during their final moments, may be nothing more than his desire to be with them, and perhaps comfort them, as their lives end.
Staff at the nursing home are now so confident of Oscar's 'choice' that they call in the relatives of the person Oscar sits beside so they have a final chance to say goodbye.
A friend who e-mailed me a link to this story is a maybe-yes believer in reincarnation. His theory? The cat was a priest in a former life. Interesting.
Nevertheless, this is an absolutely remarkable story :
We sense a tear-jerking, heart-breaking Disney movie in the offing.
"He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," said Dr. David Dosa in an interview.
"Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one," said Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University.
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. The facility 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
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 is put outside, he paces and meows his displeasure.
Nursing home staffers aren't concerned with explaining Oscar, so long as he gives families a better chance at saying goodbye to the dying.
Oscar recently received a wall plaque publicly commending his "compassionate hospice care."
A story here from CNN claiming that domestic cats, like Oscar, are descendants of a Middle Eastern wild cat :
Of course, this theory claims that humans domesticated cats.
By studying the mitochondrial DNA of 979 domestic and wild cats from Europe, Asia and Africa the researchers concluded that the origins of the species -- what O'Brien calls a feline Adam and Eve -- developed between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down from mother to child.
Domestication of cats began as long as 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, O'Brien said, as the earliest farmers domesticated grains and cereal. As that occurred, local wild cats adapted to hunting rodents in the grain and developed a relationship with humans.
The earliest archaeological evidence of cats and humans in association dates to 9,500 years ago in Cyprus.
Many long-time cat owners would probably tell you, with not too much displeasure, that it was probably the cat that domesticated us. You never really own a cat, it just stays with you for as long as it wants to.