O is for Oscar the cat

Oscar the cat’s sense of smell may be just one explanation.

oscarthecat Oscar the cat lives in the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island, United States. He is, by all accounts, “notoriously anti-social.”

That is, until, he cuddles up with residents in their final dying days. “After about six months, the staff noticed that Oscar, just like the doctors and nurses, would make his own rounds. Oscar would sniff and observe patients, then curl up to sleep with certain ones. The patients he would sleep with often died within several hours of his arrival.”

The story was even written up in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine back in 2007, A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat by David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H. Dr. Dosa believes that Oscar “might be picking up on specific odors surrounding death.”

Some animal behavior experts say the explanation about Oscar sensing a smell associated with dying is a plausible one. “I suspect he is smelling some chemical released just before dying,” says Margie Scherk, a veterinarian in Vancouver, British Columbia and president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners…

“And cats can certainly detect illness.” Dr. Jill Goldman, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Laguna Beach, California says that “Cats have a superb sense of smell,” adding that keeping a dying patient company may also be learned behavior. “There has been ample opportunity for him to make an association between ‘that’ smell [and death]”…

The sense of smell may, however, be just one explanation. Dr. Daniel Estep, a certified applied animal behaviorist in Littleton, Colorado suggests that “One of the things that happens with people who are dying is that they are not moving around much. Maybe the cat is picking up on the fact that the person on the bed is very quiet. It may not be smell or sounds, but just the lack of movement.”

The story of Oscar the cat was not without controversy, as in this review of Dr. Dosa’s 2010 book, Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat would indicate. “The NEJM piece was an essay and in no sense a scientific article, which raises questions about why it was published. If we expected the book to provide something resembling scientific evidence, we are again disappointed.”

In any case, Oscar was still at work, as of this March 2015 Redbook article. Here’s a short video, and Oscar’s Facebook page.

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