Both cats and dogs are known to have strange reactions around death. Folklore is replete with examples of these pets refusing to stay in certain rooms where someone has died or where a deceased person used to live. (Storr, pp. 206-7, 210-11; Kowalski, p. 44) Pet owners sometimes relate that their cat or dog seems to know when a family member has died off the premises. A poodle, for instance, was said to have become frantic around the time its family’s eldest son was seriously injured in a car accident. Another report suggested that a Siamese cat began to cry in distress at exactly the time that his German shepherd companion died on the operating table at a veterinary hospital. (Fox, in Bekoff p. 178) Of course, we’ve all heard accounts of family pets that traversed long distances to faithfully return to owners from whom they had become separated. Painstakingly (and controversially), biologist Rupert Sheldrake compiled reports of dogs whose behavior suggests they know when their owners have decided to come home. (Sheldrake, 2000)
If true, it’s possible that such abilities stem from these animals’ living “closer to the bone,” as I have put it. In other words, they apprehend feelings more directly and feel them more intensely than human beings do because, unlike us, they don’t traffic in rumination and analysis. A critical factor may also be that our pets are essentially family members. We love and provide for them, they love and rely upon us, and emotional bonds form.
The deeply felt nature of people-pet relations manifests in numerous anomalous reports. Many of the following were collected by author Raymond Bayless in a 1970 book, Animal Ghosts, though several — including my own — are of more recent vintage:
This last is a personal anecdote. Many years ago, I was reading in bed late one night. At some point I got the feeling of a presence in the room, which seemed to be several feet in front of me. About this same time, my cat Dalton, who had been lying on the bed, looked in the same direction, jumped off and scooted underneath the bed. (He had never acted that way before — nor did he after.) After nearly a half-hour, the uncomfortable and oppressive feeling passed. As if on cue, Dalton reappeared from under the bed. (Jawer, with Micozzi pp. 210-11)
Storr, Will. Will Storr vs. The Supernatural. New York: Harper, 2006.
Kowalski, Gary. The Souls of Animals. Novato, California: New World Library, 1991.
Fox, Michael W., “The Nature of Compassion.” in The Smile of a Dolphin, ed. Marc Bekoff. New York: Discovery Books, 2000.
Sheldrake, Rupert. Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.
Bayliss, Raymond, Animal Ghosts. New York: University Books, 1970.
Jawer, Michael with Marc S. Micozzi. The Spiritual Anatomy of Emotion. Rochester, Vermont: Park Street Press, 2009.