Recently one of my neighbors died. We had known the couple for many years and also known that they both loved cats. The other day Louise told me a story about their cat. She said that the day before Henry died, “Clara” the cat started acting strange. Clara had always been Louise’s cat, but the day before Henry died she began cuddling with Henry much more, rubbing against his leg, trying to curl up in his lap and purring and whining excessively. Henry had lived a hard life, working in a Lake Erie ship yard was his career. So at age 77 Henry went to bed and died of natural causes. There were no diseases or heart problems – his body was just done. Clara lay on the bed with Henry by his side until the funeral home came to pick him up. Louise said she had never seen anything like that and asked if I had heard stories about animals behaving that way when someone was about to die.
Actually, I had heard something like that. Several years ago a story ran about a cat in a nursing facility in Rhode Island that could “predict” the deaths of residents in the facility’s dementia unit. When “Oscar” sensed a resident’s time was near, he would curl up in bed with the resident until they passed.
“When he senses their time is near, Oscar goes to the room, jumps onto the bed, curls up next to the patient, and purrs”. The 2-year-old cat provides welcome company for grieving family members and staff keeping their bedside vigil; sometimes he fills in for family members who haven’t yet arrived at the bedside.
Is Oscar clairvoyant or was there something else going on that enabled him to “sense” death? I decided to do a little research to find out if this is common or only rare and unusual instances. I was surprised to find that this phenomenon is not so uncommon. I read one story about a small dog who only barked when someone was going to die. Apparently this little dog could sense impending death even from a building away – he barked right before the neighbor died.
Another story told about a dog that could sense his owner was in trouble. The owner got trapped under a plow on the farm and sustained a fatal injury. The dog (who was in the house at the time) started barking and jumping around. The family was able to locate the farmer but, unfortunately, it was too late. These don’t even include all the stories about animals that saved humans from peril or warned of impending danger.
I read other articles about dogs that were trained to sense oncoming seizures in epilepsy patients. These dogs could sense an attack as much as 40 minutes in advance, giving their owners time to get to a safe place. Another article described how dogs were being used to detect cancer. Some were trained to sniff urine to detect bladder cancer, others were being trained to sense ovarian cancer by smelling a woman’s breath.
Let us not forget all the wonderful work that is being done with pet therapy or equine therapy. Our Camp Hope is a primary example of the profound power and effect that animals have on us. (http://www.schoedinger.com/grief-and-healing/camp-hope)
There have been numerous examples recorded of how animals can sense things, like earthquakes and storms. But is it a special sense that humans do not have, or is it just their ability to sense changes in chemicals or barometric pressure? Some would argue that animals observe and mimic human behavior – such as taking vigil over a dying patient.
Scientifically speaking ethology is the study of animal behavior, based in zoology. Ethologists study the evolutionary basis and development of animal’s innate behaviors, like web spinning for spiders. Ethologists also try to determine physiologically how animals are able to sense death. There are many theories but, in the end, there is no concrete evidence to explain the phenomenon.
However, if you were to ask any pet owner or animal trainer, they would tell you that they have certainly witnessed uncharacteristic behavior and that it is not uncommon. Most just accept this as a special ability of the animal, or a special bond between pet and owner. Regardless, if you happen to see an animal (especially a pet) behaving unusually around an individual – pay attention. It might be a good time to contact the family or at least watch that person for signs of changing health. I believe we can trust that our animal companions are trying to tell us something and we should listen.
What are your stories about how pets have responded to illness and death?
Do you believe that animals have the ability so sense death?
Julie is the Director of Community Relations at Schoedinger Funeral Service.