The Cat Who Could Predict Death

Can a cat really know which patients are about to die?

By David Dosa | MD from Reader's Digest | February 2010

It’s certainly clear that many animals’ sense of smell is far superior to humans’. A 2006 study, published in a leading cancer journal, suggested dogs could be trained to identify microscopic quantities of certain biochemicals excreted by cancer cells. Other studies have identified melanoma-sniffing dogs, not to mention reports of earthquake-predicting fish.

“Where is the cat now?” I asked Mary, coming out of my reverie.

“He’s still in your patient’s room on her bed,” she said, adding that the woman’s daughter was in there too. I thought of a well-known quote: “A coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” I was strangely elated by the idea that Oscar’s presence at my patient’s deathbed might have a deeper meaning.

This time, I had lots of questions. I grabbed my coat and headed over to Steere House.

As I got off the elevator on the third floor, I stepped directly into an intense conversation between several people at the desk. It was about Oscar.

“So he did it again,” I said.

“Yes, he did,” said Lisa, the hospice nurse. “This cat has quite a talent.”

Down the hall in the room, I found Kathy Jones holding her mother’s hand and crying quietly. Oscar lay sprawled on the bed, his front and hind legs extended, his spine resting gently against the woman’s leg. The daughter turned to greet me. She rose to give me a hug.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

I felt her warm tears through my shirt. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen. I searched for something to say, but Kathy broke the silence.

“Dr. Dosa, I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for my mother.”

She wiped her eyes and sat back down near the bed. The movement stirred Oscar, who blinked and looked at Kathy.

“Can you believe this cat?” she asked.

“I heard he was here when your mom died,” I replied gently.

Through her tears, she smiled. “Yeah, he and I are buddies now,” she said. She reached over to pet him on the head. Oscar accepted the attention and nuzzled Kathy’s hand. “He’s a really special cat,” she added.

I said a private goodbye to my patient. Oscar continued to sit there and purr. Finally, after several minutes, I asked the question I’d been contemplating during the last hour.

“Kathy, how did you feel about Oscar being here at your mother’s passing?”

She looked at me. “Dr. Dosa, Oscar is my angel. He was here for my mother and me. With Oscar at my side, I felt a little less alone.”

So this cat was not only a harbinger of death but also a comforter during tough times for both patients and family members. It was eye-opening.

A few days later, I found Mary seated at the nurses desk on the third floor, brushing Oscar. Sprawled out in full glory, he looked like a boxer after a major bout.

“The man of the hour,” I announced.

Mary smiled. “The last couple of days, Oscar has seemed pretty beat from his vigil.”

“Sure, sleeping on a bed is really hard work,” I said jokingly.

I was finishing my examination of a patient a little while later when I felt another presence in the room. I looked down: Oscar was sitting on the floor, watching me intently.

“Hey, you,” I said. “Are you making rounds with me now?”

I reached over and offered my hand. Oscar sniffed it intently, then stood up to move toward me, allowing me to gently scratch him behind the ears. Then he leaped onto my lap and sat down, eyeing me.

“So what do you think?” I asked him, nodding toward the patient.

For a second, Oscar looked over at my patient as if he were assessing the situation. He leaped onto the arm of the recliner and sniffed the air. Finally, he jumped down and scampered out of the room. It occurred to me that I had just received a second opinion from a cat.

Returning to the front desk, I found Mary writing in a chart. “I’ve just been on rounds with Oscar,” I said.

“So are you a believer now?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. I advanced my theory that Oscar could smell some chemical process that we cannot.

Mary shrugged. “Perhaps when people show unusual interest in a patient, he wants to be part of the team,” she said.

“But that still doesn’t explain why he’s sometimes the first to enter a room whenever a patient is dying,” I responded.

Mary offered a hint of a smile. “Dr. Dosa, it looks like you’re starting to take our cat more seriously.”

I threw up my hands. “Who knows, Mary? I’m still a scientist at heart. I’ve always been taught to look dispassionately at the facts.”

“So do some investigating,” she said reasonably. “You’re a researcher. Talk to some of the family members of patients who died on Oscar’s watch. See what they have to say.”

To satisfy my curiosity, I did just as she suggested. Over the next few months, I spoke to half a dozen family members who had seen Oscar at work. I wanted to understand exactly how events had unfolded and what people had felt about this cat.

One of the people I went to, Donna Richards, was a single working mom whose mother had become a patient at Steere House. She was a former office manager at my outpatient clinic, so I felt comfortable talking with her in detail.

She told me, “First off, my mother hated cats. And it wasn’t just cats. She really didn’t like animals, period. Didn’t see the point of them. Yet, as her dementia got worse and worse, she seemed to take more comfort from the animals on the third-floor unit. I don’t know what it was about them or about what was happening to my mother, but something had really changed. She seemed more receptive on some deeper level. Does that sound strange?”

“Not at all,” I said. “In fact, lately I’ve been wondering about the true nature of our connection with animals, especially when we’re very young and very old. My son, Justin, has always been drawn to animals, even before he could talk. And I’ve seen that same intense curiosity with some of my patients. It’s as if the relationship transcends language. I’m learning only now just how smart animals are.”

“Well, Oscar was smart,” Donna said. “He generally kept a safe distance from my mother, but when she’d stop to talk to him, he’d stop too. He never stayed long, and he never cuddled up to her—he was more like a visiting dignitary than a house cat. But he always made time to hear her out.”

I asked her to tell me about how things went at the end.

“When my mother got sick for the last time,” she said, “Oscar seemed to warm toward me. In the last 72 hours of her life, when I was sleeping in a recliner next to my mother, Oscar would wander into the room and snuggle next to me. After a while, he would jump onto my mother’s bed and sit beside her. He did that for pretty much the entire time she was dying. He always seemed to know when he was needed, although he never asked for anything in return. He would let me stroke him under his chin and rub his little ears. It was as if he knew it was helping me. Which it did. There is something very calming about petting a cat.”

She paused and, seeing how engaged I was, continued.

“I went home for a little bit at one point,” Donna said. “And sure enough, my mother died shortly after I left her room. Honestly, she probably waited for me to leave before she let go. That was just her style.” She smiled. “But my mother wasn’t alone. She had Oscar. When she took her last breath, that cat was next to her. He was right there.”

I was no animal behaviorist, but I was gaining compelling insight.

I had an image in my head of Oscar sitting with Donna and her dying mother in a darkened room during the woman’s final days. I could see it. I thought, Maybe that’s all Oscar really was: a companion, a sentient being who accompanied one person on his or her journey to the next world. Or accompanied a family member through the grief of losing someone he or she loved, a kind of underworld of its own. Wasn’t that enough?

I wondered: Did it matter that this cat had some extrasensory power of perception that allowed him to pick up on impending mortality before highly trained medical minds could? Or was he just a master of empathy? Maybe caring was this cat’s superpower.

Certainly Oscar had a lot of family members to bestow that power on—all the residents of the third floor, in fact. This was his home, after all. And when someone in his family was in trouble, he went to that person and stayed with him or her for as long as he was needed.

Yes, I had started out not believing in this cat. But I now concluded, with awe, that Oscar indeed had a purpose. An important one.

I went to Mary and shared what I’d learned about this enigmatic and stalwart cat.

“The thing you have to remember about domesticated animals,” she responded, “is that people began keeping them because they, in fact, had a purpose. They worked. Dogs herded sheep or other animals. Cats hunted mice on farms. One way or another, the animals earned their keep.”

“So you’re saying it’s Oscar’s job to take care of people?” I said.

Mary shrugged. “Why not? Maybe he’s just more highly evolved than other cats. Maybe it’s Oscar’s way of paying the rent.” She checked her watch and smiled at me. “We’re all just guests here, you know.”

David Dosa, MD, a geriatrician since 2003, lives in Barrington, Rhode Island. (He has changed most of the names here for privacy.)

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