David Dosa is a doctor at Steere House Nursing Home, where patients have Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's, or are terminally ill.
One of the home's
pets, a cat named Oscar, is special. Dr Dosa
Cats may have nine
lives, but we only have one, and we're all
Many of my residents
have forgotten almost everything they have ever learned over their lifetimes.
They seldom remember the names of
Yet they seem to like
having pets around. Their love of animals,
Oscar was adopted
from an animal shelter when he was a kitten, to
When I met him for
the first time, he wasn't friendly with me and he wasn't chummy with any
of the patients either. He was the type
But then, about six months after his arrival, Oscar's aloof behaviour changed. He started to make house calls to fellow residents.
I'd like to say that
I was the first one to notice Oscar's peculiar abilities, but I wasn't.
It was a summer morning in 2006, when Mary Miranda, the day-shift nurse,
called me over. 'David,' she said, 'I'd like to show you something in room
As I approached, the head of a black-and-white tabby cat slowly rose
up from beneath the sheets. Moving caused the bell on his collar to jingle slightly. The cat's ears perked up and he glanced at me with questioning eyes. Then, with a look of resignation, he rested his
head back on his front paws and purred softly while he nestled
against Mrs Davis's right leg.
'You brought me in here to see a cat?' I said.
'I know this is weird,
David,' said Mary, 'but the thing is, Oscar never spends any time with
the patients. He usually goes off and
Now I'd heard everything. Mary continued, 'You know, Oscar wandered into another patient's room right before she died yesterday.'
'Don't get me wrong,' I told Mary. 'I love the concept of an animal sitting with me as I die. Maybe he likes the patients who are dying because they don't give him any trouble.'
I left the hospital
and drove across town to my outpatient clinic.
It had been less than
an hour since I was standing in her room, watching her breathe I tried
to tell Mary not to make too much of
I put Oscar out of
my mind for the next few months, until I received
'I wanted to let you
know that Ellen Sanders has passed away. Oscar
Oscar wouldn't stay very long, but as she got sicker, he would stay longer. On the day Marion died, Oscar jumped on to her bed and sat
down beside her.
'But the thing that finally made me a believer was a death that occurred several months later. By then, a number of people were beginning to talk about Oscar.
Ralph Reynolds was dying, and we were trying to do everything that we could to make him as comfortable as possible. We believed that he was close to death and one of the aides put Oscar on the bed and announced to us that if the patient were dying, Oscar should be present.
Oscar looked at all of us as if we were mad and ran out of the room.
'Ralph hung on for
another 36 hours. But, sure enough, just four
When we opened the door, he dashed straight for the bed and leapt up next to Ralph. He curled up there and refused to budge. A few hours later, Ralph was gone. Oscar didn't leave his side until the funeral director came.'
I thought for a moment,
'When you consider it from a scientific point of view, it's easy to shrug
off suggestions that a cat can predict death. Maybe he just likes
to hang out with dying people because
However, in truth,
I felt I had to get closer to the heart of this mystery. I decided
to talk to families of the patients who had died
mother, Marion, had passed away in November 2005. 'When Oscar was just
a kitten,' recalled Jack, 'I used to bring him into my mother's room and
put him on the bed. He would stay with her for a minute or two and
then he would leave.
'To pass the time, my mother and I went looking for him and found him in another unit sitting with a patient. He looked really anxious. A little while later, Oscar suddenly raced into my father's room.
'It was only later that we learned that the patient in the other unit was dying. Oscar stayed with that patient until he was gone, then he raced over and came to my dad. A few hours later, my father died.'
So how does Oscar know?
There is a plausible biological explanation for the so-called 'sweet smell of death'. As cells die, carbohydrates are degraded into many different oxygenated compounds, including various types of ketones - chemical mixtures known for their fragrant aroma.
Could it be, perhaps, that Oscar simply smells an elevated level of a chemical compound released prior to someone's death? It is certainly clear that animals have a refined sense of smell that goes well beyond that of humans.
It has been suggested that dogs could be trained to identify micro- scopic quantities of certain biochemicals excreted by cancer cells on the breaths of lung and breast cancer patients. Is it outlandish to suggest that Oscar has learned how to pick up on a specific smell emitted in the final hours of a patient's life?
Oscar's peculiar ability
appears to be as real as it is mysterious,
Science has taken
us a long way in our profession, but we still just scratch the surface.
The rest remains a mystery. Maybe some people
Adapted from Making The Rounds With Oscar by David Dosa, published by Headline Review at £12.99. Dr David Dosa. 2010. To order a copy at £11.70 (p&p free), tel: 0845 155 0720.
House TV series, season 5 episode 18, took this real life mystery
and made show that centered around a cat who knew when people were
about to die. Click below to see a promo of this episode.