Updated: Jul 28, 2020
Oscar, a rescue cat in a nursing home, accurately anticipated the moment of death of human patients over fifty times. Since Oscar knew before medical staff could determine this, it allowed the nurses to alert family members that the time had come.
While different people have different opinions as to HOW exactly Oscar knew when death was imminent, no one doubted that his predictions were accurate.
Oscar would come from a distance, and insist on entering the room of a patient, and would snuggle next to them until they passed. What was interesting is that Oscar, a once feral cat, was not interested in cuddling at other times. Yet, when the moment of passing approached, he would sit by the person's side until the very end.
There are stories of other animals having this ability, so Oscar is not the only one to be able to anticipate the point of crossing over. So in addition to animals who reside at nursing facilities, pets often know when it is time, and their owner is dying.
Thousands of anecdotal stories of people's pets knowing when their human is passing, even if the animal and human are not present in the same room. Ruppert Sheldrake discusses these phenomena in his book, "Animals Who Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home" and has documented thousands of examples. Another example of apparent premonition is an Octopus named Paul, who accurately predicted the winners of the World Cup more times than chance. This suggests there is more to these examples than simply the "smell of impending death."
Stories of animals sensing impending natural events such as storms, earthquakes are as old as written history. But their ability to anticipate critical human events is just beginning to be taken seriously. Oscar, the cat, was untrained when he was adopted from a shelter as a kitten and grew up at the Steere Nursing Home in Providence, Rhode Island. Oscar was the subject of a CBS news story with Katie Couric. Steere is a 41-bed unit that treats people with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and other illnesses. Most of the patients are in the end stage of life and are generally unaware of their surroundings.
It seems that two to four hours before a patient’s death, Oscar would enter the room, leap up onto the bed, curl up with the patient, purr, and remain there through the death process. As soon as the patient passed, Oscar would leave the room. According to geriatric doctor David Dosa, “Oscar has done this twenty-five times. Even before the staff was aware of the imminence of demise, Oscar would appear.” Since this statement, as of articles posted in January 2010, Oscar has done this another 25 times, so he is on record as appearing 50 times just before a patient dies.
Oscar’s appearance has allowed the staff to notify the family in time. Oscar also provided companionship to those with terminal dementia, allowing those, many who had no family, to not have to die alone.
While the mechanism of Oscar’s foresight is unknown, and many outside the facility refuse to believe in the cat’s "sixth sense" and ability to “predict death,” the staff says that Oscar has never been wrong. Various animal experts have expressed opinions, such as the possibility that Oscar may be sensing a smell associated with death. The story cites Margie Scherk, a veterinarian in Vancouver, British Columbia, saying, “I suspect he is smelling some chemical released just before dying.” While that may be plausible, it doesn’t explain the kind cuddling with an often unconscious patient, and the ability to remain vigilant until the person passes.
As the story reports, if in some rare cases when the family doesn’t want him curled up around a relative in a state of passing, and if he is removed from the room, he paces outside the dying person’s door, meowing in distress.
What makes Oscar an even more interesting case study is that other than helping people transition, he is not cuddly. He is very grumpy if you try to hold or pet him. He will take treats from staff but then prefers to go off and be alone, only engaging when his internal mission calls him into the room of a soon-to-pass patient.
Another example, Scamp, who worked in a nursing home, would alert staff when a patient was dying. He would visit when someone was getting ready to pass and alerted the staff with such insistent barking until they recognized that someone was at that stage.
Hospice Work – Therapy Dogs International
Therapy Dogs International (TDI) was founded in 1976 in New Jersey, and now has registered 25,000 Therapy Dogs for a variety of services, one of which is their Hospice Program, which, they explain, “brings comfort, love, and companionship through the use of our dogs.” They readily acknowledge that not all dogs or their handlers are suitable for hospice work, but for those who do it well, the results are impressive, and much comfort is brought to the patient and the family if they are present. TDI’s website explains their inspiring mission:
"Our goal is to enrich the quality of life for the hospice patient and often their families as well. The sight of our dogs and the touch of their fur often brings peace and joy to those patients whose life once included animals. Physical contact has a calming effect and dogs have the ability to bring back pleasant memories in a person's life. Therapy dogs help combat loneliness, and they give people the chance to have something to look forward to. Exposure to our dogs allows the patient to feel needed and wanted at a time in their life when death is imminent."
It seems amazing, but as TDI’s website states, dogs that have experience and training working in hospice appear to “learn to be able to sense the process an individual goes through just before death.” Signs may include a change in breathing, restlessness, or possible disorientation, or perhaps dogs possess a level of sensitivity we have yet to understand. As the TDI website further explains:
"Handlers must recognize if it's appropriate to stay or excuse themselves when the end is near. There are times when the family may request that the therapy dog lies by the end of the bed during the patient's final moments of life. This might be because the patient loved dogs, and the sight of the dog brings a sense of normalcy for not only the patient but also the family as well."
Hospice for dogs who are at the end of life
There is a new movement towards providing quality of life for dogs who are at the end of their lives and owners who can't take care of them at this time. There are some very compassionate and caring groups who can handle this level of care. One such example is House with a Heart, whose Director is Sher Polvinale, where animals can have a happy time as they reach their final days.
If you have a wonderful, calm loving pet dog, and you have a desire to make a huge impact in someone's final days, consider getting certified to do Hospice Therapy visits.
Remember that Hospice Dog visits should be short, no more than an hour or two, perhaps once a week, as dogs do take on the energy of these experiences. Make sure you are paying close attention to the dog and their need to "discharge energy" and heal from the emotional intensity. They should be allowed to have "downtime" in order not to take on the emotional stress that they may be exposed to in these visits.
Genie Joseph, PhD
Director: The Human-Animal Connection