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Oscar holds vigil for dying patientsIn honor of National Cat Day, we pay tribute to extraordinary felines providing a special kind of care.

Over the past few years cats have been making headlines about how they can provide comfort to patients and families dealing with critical illnesses or nearing the end of life. While not professionally trained, one could say these special kitties play a unique role on the palliative care team.

Undoubtedly the most famous of these cats is Oscar, a therapy cat living in the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence Center in Providence, RI.

Oscar came to public attention in July 2007 after he was featured in an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine for appearing to hold vigils for dying patients. It has been theorized that Oscar’s abilities could have something to do with a cats’ ability to smell ketones—the biochemical released by dying cells, or just that cats like it when people are lying still.

“For many months we used to jokingly ask for the ‘Oscar Report’ when we entered the dementia unit,” says David Dosa, MD, author of the New York Times Best Seller Making Rounds with Oscar: The Extraordinary Gift of an Ordinary Cat. “The nurses and staff on the unit strongly believed that Oscar had an uncanny ability to ‘predict’ when patients were about to die simply by showing up in a particular room.

“As a physician, I was late to the party until one day I actually observed Oscar on the job. After witnessing the vigil, I left the nursing home later that day and wrote the essay that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.”

Many people would be surprised to learn that Oscar is himself a hospice survivor. After suffering a severe allergic reaction to a cat treat, Oscar was in congestive heart failure and was having trouble breathing. An echocardiogram showed that his heart was not functioning well.

“A decision was made to take Oscar home to the nursing home to die on hospice,” Dosa recalls. “His medications were stopped… (But) a few days later he was back patrolling the nursing home.”

Oscar’s vets now speculate he had a reaction to a steroid he received for the allergy and had gone into steroid cardiomyopathy. Stopping his medications solved the problem and he has been back at Steere House for an additional two years.

“The interesting parable is that humans often live longer on hospice than when we treat them aggressively,” Dosa says.

Oscar is not unique in what he does, and Dosa and has heard of many other animals who have an innate ability to sense when a person is near death. For people looking to add pet therapy to their assisted living or nursing home, Dr. Dosa suggests contacting the Delta Society for information on the types of animals and training that are helpful.

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Liz Salmi is director of communications for the Coalition for Compassionate Care of California.

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