August 31, 2020

It’s Reigning Cats and Dogs: The Psychic Lives of Our Pets

One day several years ago, as my girlfriend Lauren and I were out on her patio, a cute little stray kitten wandered in and stopped to look at us. Lauren who loves cats smiled encouragingly and bent down to greet our visitor who then tentatively approached. I immediately dubbed her "Petunia," though we didn’t then know her sex. That was the beginning of a love affair -- between Lauren and Petunia who quickly became Lauren’s most affectionate and devoted companion, displacing me in that hierarchy to a secondary position.  

Lauren soon discovered that not only was Petunia exceedingly affectionate, but she was clearly psychic, too. She always seemed to know, for example, when Lauren was planning to drive across the bay to visit me. And when Lauren would sometimes bring Petunia with her, the cat would invariably hide on the day Lauren was to leave for home. It got to be so that we would have to mime to each other so that Petunia would not know Lauren’s plans.

There were, in fact, so many instances of Petunia’s unusual, seemingly psychic, sensitivities that a few years later, I actually wrote a little illustrated book about her I called Petunia, The Psychic Cat. Here she is:

Indeed, there is abundant evidence that cats are telepathic. Rupert Sheldrake, an exceptionally creative and curious English scientist, has collected many cases of this kind, and not only about cats, in one of the most remarkable books on animals I have ever read. It has a most intriguing title, too:  Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. But there is a lot about cats in this book, too, and in the first part of this essay I am going to draw on it extensively. It begins with this story about a professor at a university of which I happen to be an alumnus:

When the telephone rings in the household of a noted professor at the University of California in Berkeley, his wife knows when her husband is on the other end of the line. How? Whiskins, the family’s silver tabby cat rushes to the telephone and paws at the receiver. "Many times he succeeds in taking it off the hook and makes appreciative meows that are clearly audible to my husband at the other end," she says. "If someone else telephones, Whiskins takes no notice."

This is not an isolated case. Sheldrake writes that he has collected fifty-nine cases (!) of cats who respond to the telephone when a particular person is calling, even before the receiver is picked up. In every instance, the caller is someone to whom the cat is deeply attached.

Here’s another typical example:

Seven years after she acquired Carlo, my daughter went to teacher training college and rang us infrequently. However, when the phone did ring and it was Marian ... Carlo would bound up the stairs [where the phone was] before I had picked up the receiver. There was no way that this cat could have known my daughter was to ring us ... He never did this at any other time and was not allowed upstairs anyway. 

Many cat owners – about one-third, according to a survey that Sheldrake conducted – believe their cats are telepathic. The examples above and those to come will make it clear why so many cat lovers are convinced that this is so.

As the title of Sheldrake’s book implies, he is particularly interested in anticipatory behavior in animals, especially dogs, who give evidence that they are aware when their owners will be returning home. These reports do not depend on anecdotal accounts alone; Sheldrake has actually carried out controlled experiments to establish the point. Here is a summary of a typical such experiment.

A dog owner is sent into town to wander about. At a certain time of her own choosing, she forms an intention to return home. Cameras have been placed in her home so that the movements of her dog can be tracked. Let’s say the dog has been lying on a sofa. However, at the very moment the owner has turned around and has started her trek toward home, the dog suddenly jumps off the sofa and pads over to the door to wait for his owner to return.

There are many cases of such astonishing anticipatory behavior in dogs in Sheldrake’s book and many other marvelous stories about the amazing things that dogs are capable of, so I highly recommend this book to any of you who are dog lovers. But, as I remarked in my previous blog about animals, since I fancy cats and am actually a bit averse to dogs, the rest of this essay will concern itself with the wonders of cats.

However, before moving on, I should note that cats, too, can exhibit in the same kind of anticipatory behavior as dogs. Here’s just one such example:

When the son of Dr. Carlos Sarasola was living with him in  Buenas Aires, he often came home late at night, after his father had gone to bed with their cat, Lennon. Dr. Sarasola noticed that Lennon would suddenly jump off the bed and go and wait by the front door ten or fifteen minutes before his son arrived home by taxi. Dr. Sarasola made careful observations of the time the cat responded to see if the cat could be responding to the sound of the taxi door shutting. He found that the cat responded well before the taxi arrived. "One night I paid attention to several taxis that stopped at the front of my building. Three taxis stopped and Lennon remained quiet with me in bed. Some time later, he jumped down and went to the door. Five minutes later I heard the taxi arrive in which my son was traveling."

Cats seem to be very sensitive not only to the emotional state of their owners – there are countless examples of that and this is well known – but are especially telepathically attuned to accidents, illness and death. Here are a couple of illustrative cases that Sheldrake provides.

In May 1994 I sat outside on the veranda, and my three-year-old cat, Klaerchen, lay beside me purring comfortably. My eleven-year-old daughter had gone out with her girlfriend on her bicycle. Everything seemed harmonious, but suddenly Klaerchen jumped up, uttered a cry we had never heard before and in a flash ran into the living room where she sat down in front of the telephone. The phone soon rang and I got the news that my daughter had had a bad accident with the bike and had been taken to the hospital.

We had a beautiful Carthusian tomcat that we all loved, but he loved my husband most of all. In the summer holidays we went camping in Denmark and left the cat at an animal home in Switzerland [where we lived]. In Denmark my husband, who was forty-eight years old and had never been ill, died of a heart attack. When we went to pick up our cat the lady told us she knew exactly when a tragedy had happened to us and then gave us the exact day and hour, which she could not have known! Our tomcat had withdrawn into a corner and whined in a way he had never done before, staring at a certain point in front of him as if he observed something special, his whole body shaking.

Cats seem to sense the onset of death, even when there may have been no discernible sign of it beforehand. Again, there are many examples of this kind of premonition in cats, and we will soon consider in detail a couple of such cases, but for now, here is one last brief such account from Sheldrake’s book.

Dorothy Doherty says that the day before her husband collapsed and died, their cat continually rubbed around his legs. "I remember him saying, 'What’s wrong with her today?' As she had never been so persistent before, I have often wondered if she knew what was to happen."

About the certainty of that kind of presentiment, there was no doubt in the case of Oscar the Cat, whose remarkable story was sent to me by colleague. It was originally written by Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician at Rhode Island Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, and published in a journal in 2007. Here’s the story, which was entitled "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat." You will find it charmingly written, almost like a fable, but it nevertheless is based in fact.

Oscar the Cat awakens from his nap, opening a single eye to survey his kingdom. From atop the desk in the doctor’s charting area, the cat peers down the two wings of the nursing home’s advanced dementia unit. All quiet on the western and eastern fronts. Slowly, he rises and extravagantly stretches his 2-year-old frame, first backward and then forward. He sits up and considers his next move.

In the distance, a resident approaches. It is Mrs. P., who has been living on the dementia unit’s third floor for 3 years now. She has long forgotten her family, even though they visit her almost daily. Moderately disheveled after eating her lunch, half of which she now wears on her shirt, Mrs. P. is taking one of her many aimless strolls to nowhere. She glides toward Oscar, pushing her walker and muttering to herself with complete disregard for her surroundings. Perturbed, Oscar watches her carefully and, as she walks by, lets out a gentle hiss, a rattlesnake-like warning that says "leave me alone." She passes him without a glance and continues down the hallway. Oscar is relieved. It is not yet Mrs. P.’s time, and he wants nothing to do with her.

Oscar jumps down off the desk, relieved to be once more alone and in control of his domain. He takes a few moments to drink from his water bowl and grab a quick bite. Satisfied, he enjoys another stretch and sets out on his rounds. Oscar decides to head down the west wing first, along the way sidestepping Mr. S., who is slumped over on a couch in the hallway. With lips slightly pursed, he snores peacefully -- perhaps blissfully unaware of where he is now living. Oscar continues down the hallway until he reaches its end and Room 310. The door is closed, so Oscar sits and waits. He has important business here.

Twenty-five minutes later, the door finally opens, and out walks a nurse’s aide carrying dirty linens. "Hello, Oscar," she says. "Are you going inside?" Oscar lets her pass, then makes his way into the room, where there are two people. Lying in a corner bed and facing the wall, Mrs. T. is asleep in a fetal position. Her body is thin and wasted from the breast cancer that has been eating away at her organs. She is mildly jaundiced and has not spoken in several days. Sitting next to her is her daughter, who glances up from her novel to warmly greet the visitor. "Hello, Oscar. How are you today?"

Oscar takes no notice of the woman and leaps up onto the bed. He surveys Mrs. T. She is clearly in the terminal phase of illness, and her breathing is labored. Oscar’s examination is interrupted by a nurse, who walks in to ask the daughter whether Mrs. T. is uncomfortable and needs more morphine. The daughter shakes her head, and the nurse retreats. Oscar returns to his work. He sniffs the air, gives Mrs. T. one final look, then jumps off the bed and quickly leaves the room. Not today.

Making his way back up the hallway, Oscar arrives at Room 313. The door is open, and he proceeds inside. Mrs. K. is resting peacefully in her bed, her breathing steady but shallow. She is surrounded by photographs of her grandchildren and one from her wedding day. Despite these keepsakes, she is alone. Oscar jumps onto her bed and again sniffs the air. He pauses to consider the situation, and then turns around twice before curling up beside Mrs. K.

One hour passes. Oscar waits. A nurse walks into the room to check on her patient. She pauses to note Oscar’s presence. Concerned, she hurriedly leaves the room and returns to her desk. She grabs Mrs. K.’s chart off the medical-records rack and begins to make phone calls. Within a half hour the family starts to arrive. Chairs are brought into the room, where the relatives begin their vigil. The priest is called to deliver last rites. And still, Oscar has not budged, instead purring and gently nuzzling Mrs. K.

A young grandson asks his mother, "What is the cat doing here?" The mother, fighting back tears, tells him, "He is here to help Grandma get to heaven." Thirty minutes later, Mrs. K. takes her last earthly breath. With this, Oscar sits up, looks around, then departs the room so quietly that the grieving family barely notices.

On his way back to the charting area, Oscar passes a plaque mounted on the wall. On it is engraved a commendation from a local hospice agency: "For his compassionate hospice care, this plaque is awarded to Oscar the Cat." Oscar takes a quick drink of water and returns to his desk to curl up for a long rest. His day’s work is done. There will be no more deaths today, not in Room 310 or in any other room for that matter. After all, no one dies on the third floor unless Oscar pays a visit and stays awhile.

Note: Since he was adopted by staff members as a kitten, Oscar the Cat has had an uncanny ability to predict when residents are about to die. Thus far, he has presided over the deaths of more than 25 residents on the third floor of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. His mere presence at the bedside is viewed by physicians and nursing home staff as an almost absolute indicator of impending death, allowing staff members to adequately notify families. Oscar has also provided companionship to those who would otherwise have died alone. For his work, he is highly regarded by the physicians and staff at Steere House and by the families of the residents whom he serves.


Moved by this story when I first read it, I sent it to my daughter Kathryn who, like her father before her and possibly because of him, has always loved cats and lived with them for most of her life. Kathryn was not surprised to read his story in part because she had one to match it.

This is what she wrote to me after reading about Oscar the Cat. In it, she will describe what she witnessed after she brought her mother, Elizabeth, who was ill with cancer, to live with her and her husband, Bill.

When we first brought Elizabeth back to the house, she was extraordinarily sick -- barely functioning, barely talking. We set her up in the little bedroom and she stayed in bed. Little Princess was a cat that lived down the street. She didn’t have a good home life and for a while before Elizabeth came, she would come up to our house and we would pet her on the back patio, but she would never come in and we would never feed her. Then she would go home and come back when she wanted -- sometimes that next day, sometimes a few days later. The day that we brought Elizabeth home, Princess came up came on the back patio, walked in the back door and went right straight to Elizabeth’s room. The cat had never been in the house. She jumped up on the bed and she walked around Elizabeth and then settled right down next to her. 

Elizabeth had had surgery and her stomach area was very tender. But this cat knew not to walk on her stomach. Princess would walk across her shoulders, would curl up by her head, by her side, and by her feet, even lying on her legs but never on her stomach. Princess stayed with Elizabeth so long that the neighbor who owned the cat started calling around the neighborhood trying to find the cat. The cat finally decided that she should go home. But the next day she was back and she continued to come back every day and stay with Elizabeth all day.

Elizabeth loved cats. Even in her befuddled state she was absolutely thrilled that the cat was with her and she would smile when the cat walked in the room and was just happy to have her there. This went on for a couple of weeks. But Elizabeth was so bad that I had to put her in a nursing home and while Elizabeth was gone the cat would come in and go to her room and look for her.

Sometime during this period when Elizabeth was in the nursing home, the woman who owned the cat was going to move and she was looking for somebody to take all of her animals -- she had three cats and one dog. Bill and this neighbor did not get along at all, but when we heard that she was going to give the cats away, we contacted her through a different neighbor and they told her that we were interested in taking the one cat. She finally called Bill and said that we had to take two cats because they were sisters but we said that we only wanted the one cat. She told us "Well, you can’t have either one then." A couple of weeks later she called us and said we could have the one cat and she would leave the paperwork in the mailbox and we could have the cat when she moved. So she left the paperwork in the mailbox and was supposed to bring the cat by but instead she called us and said "Well, sorry -- the cat jumped into the moving van with us so we just took her." We had already told Elizabeth that we were getting the cat for when she came home and she was, of course, devastated. 

Two weeks later our neighbor (who had facilitated the deal) called us at the apartment and said "Aren’t you taking care of your cat?" "We said, what cat?" He said the cat you got from the neighbor. We said we didn’t get the cat -- she took her with her. He said "Well, the cat is right here in my yard and she looks terrible -- she’s all messy and matted." We said we would be will be right there! 

We went the home and there’s the cat. We took her to the vet, got her cleaned up, shaved and she became our little Princess. Elizabeth was thrilled -- couldn’t wait to get home to see the cat. The cat immediately recognized her, stayed with her constantly and they were a happy couple for the entire time that Elizabeth was there. Elizabeth was definitely this cat’s charge. 

Elizabeth had gotten well enough during part of the time that she was home to use her computer. She had a printer, and after she died, I noticed there was a printout on the printer that was entitled "When cats grieve." The article from the Internet was all about how to take care of a cat after their master died. So goes the story of Princess and Elizabeth. But it didn’t stop there.

Nita [Bill’s mother who also lived in the house], who did not like cats and put up with the fact that we had adopted little Princess really did like little Princess a little bit. When Nita got sick and started to go downhill, Princess would jump up on her lap and sit with her during the day and comfort her just like she had done with Elizabeth. And when Nita was much closer to death, little Princess would climb up on her bed and stay with her just like she’d done with Elizabeth.

So believe me, we know that cats really do understand when people are sick and they do try to take care of them in a lot of cases. Elizabeth was happier and I believed lived longer because Princess cared for her. 

After Elizabeth died [she had to be moved to a hospice before her death], Princess constantly went into her room looking for her. It was probably the better part of a month before she stopped. She did the same thing when Nita died, but not for as long. 

Princess knew she was supposed to find and take care of Elizabeth and she did. It’s not like we brought her into the house. She marched right in the open back door and ran through the house like a kitty with a purpose to find Elizabeth. Elizabeth suffered a lot while she fought her terminal battle and little Princess softened her struggles. She could bring a smile to Elizabeth’s face when no one else could. She was one of Elizabeth’s last thoughts as she left us that article so we could take care of Princess’s own grief. As we found out, cats grieve too. 


Our pets grieve for us when we die, and God knows that when one of our beloved pets die, we are broken-hearted and mourn for them. I have seen so many women weep with anguish on such occasions, and we men, too, are not immune from deep grief on suffering the loss of pet. Indeed, the death of a pet with whom we have shared such an intimate life for many years can be more devastating than the death of a person, and often is.  

We form such deep bonds with our pets, and they with us, that to experience a final, wrenching separation is often hard to endure. Never to see our pets again? That is a sorrowful thought indeed.


For many people, whether they have heard of near-death experiences or not, the thought that we may after death be reunited with our own loved ones is a powerful source of hope and often a deep-seated belief. And the many accounts of NDEs we now have where such encounters have been reported only bolster those beliefs. I know that, for my part, I cherish the hope that when I die, assuming I can ever get around to it, I will see members of my family again, particularly my father whom I lost, seemingly for good, when I was a child.

But then we love our pets, too. Is it too much to hope that we will never see them again as well? Or is it possible ....

Be sure to check out my next blog to find out the answer to the question whether when a pet dies, does he or she really disappear for good?

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