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Unimagined Sensitivities, Part 9

A closer look at cats and dogs' strange reactions to death, departures, and loss

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:

  • A couple had owned an Irish setter for nearly 15 years when he died. Three days after they buried Red, the woman awoke from “a realistic dream of seeing Red running across hills” to hear a characteristic barking. Her husband, who had also awoken, heard the same; it sounded exactly like Red. On three more occasions the wife would awake from dreams of Red to hear the barking, and her husband would also hear the sounds (though he had not been dreaming of Red). A short time later, they brought a German shepherd puppy into their home and, from that day forward, the mysterious barking ceased. (Bayless, p. 123)
  • A husband and wife each "saw" a medium sized house cat in their new home. In one case, it raced by the wife and darted into an adjacent room; in another, it sat by the refrigerator as if anticipating a noonday feeding. In both instances, the cat vanished after a few moments. At the time, neither spouse had spoken to the other about their sighting.
  • A woman whose dog had died "heard" him whining and crying all night long. This continued periodically over the next two months; her husband said that he, too, heard Butch barking loudly at the back door. A neighbor (who knew Butch was deceased but not about the alleged sounds) told the couple about a dream where the dog was crying at the door wanting to be let in. The owner further related that she would hear a floor board outside the bedroom squeak in the same way, and at roughly the same time, as it did when Butch was alive and wanting to be let out in the morning. (Bayless, pp. 103-4)
  • A man woke from a nightmare involving a desperate struggle as if drowning and an apprehensive sense of terror and despair. He then had a second dream involving his dog, Bob, who seemed to be lying in water. The dog’s body was subsequently found — he had been hit by a passing train while on a bridge that crossed over water. (Bayless, p. 43)
  • After Nellie, a miniature dachshund, died, her owner started hearing whimpers that sounded like those the dog used to make. Initially, the man brushed off the sounds but then his fiancée heard them, too.
  • A couple that had recently bought a house reported seeing a cat — with the wife attesting that she felt it jump on the bed. A neighbor told them about the previous owner's cat, which had been run over by a car shortly before they bought the house and apparently matched the description of their apparition.
  • A husband and wife started to "hear" their 16-year-old dog's squeaky toys shortly after he was euthanized. Then they found that the toys had somehow moved from a box near the back door and to a spot near the couch, which had been the dog's favorite spot.
  • A family’s dog, Bandit, had to be put down. Soon afterward, the owner and her youngest child were startled to "see" their beloved pet bounding towards their backdoor. So real did it seem that the woman opened the door before remembering that Bandit was no longer with them.

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.