When the medium swirled into my veterinary consulting room, she had a black cat sitting on her shoulder. ‘He’s called Antac,’ she declared. ‘The reincarnation of an Inca Emperor.’
Madam Mountjoy went on to tell me the cat had extra sensory perception (ESP) and could contact the dead — a skill he utilised to enhance her own dealings with those who had passed over, human or otherwise.
She tilted her head towards the cat and asked him to repeat what he’d said. ‘OK, I’ll tell him,’ she murmured and turned to me. ‘Antac informs me that the spirits of many cats and dogs are circling above us.’
I felt quite affronted. I was still a young veterinary graduate at the time and certainly hadn’t killed off that many pets. But I kept quiet and concentrated on the earthly task required of me — trimming Antac’s claws. While Madam Mountjoy was certainly among my more eccentric clients, she is not alone in believing that her pet has some kind of ‘sixth sense’. Many people think that their beloved animals have a heightened awareness of ghosts, are actively in communication with the dead or have the ability to predict the future.
A sheep in New Zealand — called Sonny Wool, after the All Black centre, Sonny Bill Williams — is being lauded as ‘psychic’ for predicting a string of rugby World Cup results. Sonny was presented with two buckets of food, each marked with a flag of the teams playing — and repeatedly chose the right one.
Similarly, Paul, an octopus living in a German zoo became a star of the 2010 football World Cup when he correctly forecast the outcome of eight matches — by dipping a tentacle into boxes bearing national flags.
But is there any truth in this idea that animals have psychic powers? I’ve many stories from clients telling me of ESP experiences with their pets, believing that dogs can read their mind.
And a recent study by researchers at the University of Florida suggested that, while dogs’ ability to ‘read our minds’ is real, it is not so much a mystical power as a result of spending so much time with humans.
Using a series of short tests, researchers found that pets were better at interpreting human body language, verbal commands and frames of mind than stray dogs.
We dog owners already know that. Our dogs become attuned to us, sensing our moods — tiredness, depression — often before we consciously exhibit any outward signs of distress.
I had one client who suffered from migraines. She told me that often she’d be sitting on her sofa when her cat, Pickles, would jump onto the back, stretch out his paws and lie over her head. Within 30 minutes a migraine attack would start. My client eventually realised that Pickles was sensing what was about to happen. So she would take her medication as soon as he tried to settle on her head. That prevented her migraines from occurring.
In 2007 an American geriatrician published an article in the New England Journal Of Medicine, noting that a cat in a Rhode Island nursing home appeared to correctly predict patient deaths by curling up next to them in their final moments. By March 2010 he had correctly predicted 50 deaths.
Oscar was probably sensing minute biochemical changes in those dying people rather than exhibiting any ‘sixth sense’ says Daniel Mills, a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine at Lincoln University.
The sense of change — either in health or emotions — that our pets are capable of detecting is being put to good use. Medical Detection Dogs is a charity that trains dogs to help people with life threatening conditions. In cases of prostate cancer, dogs can detect chemicals released into the urine which means that the disease is present.
Diabetes sufferers can benefit from having assistance dogs to sniff their breath and so detect when blood sugar levels are changing. The British journal Gut reported this summer that an eight-year-old Labrador, Marine, has been trained to detect colorectal cancer and has been 91 per cent accurate when sniffing a patient’s breath.
While animals’ biochemical awareness may have been proved, how does that explain the stories we hear of pets sensing when owners are due home?
It’s argued that this is because dogs and cats can hear a car engine before you do and so are alerted to the homecoming. Or that there is a specific routine which they come to recognise.
Not necessarily so. Biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake, former Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, has researched these unexplained abilities of animals and published a series of papers on the subject.
Pets were videotaped while their owners had driven away from home and returned in a different car and at different times of the day. Despite this, the pets were seen to go up and wait at windows as soon as the owners started to make their way back. Are these animals really psychic?
Certainly, many animals possess a type of awareness that seems to exceed human capabilities. For example, the alarm calls and movement inland among monkeys and birds prior to a tsunami, or birds hiding their heads under their wings prior to an earthquake.
My African Grey parrot, Polly, once exhibited strange behaviour. One evening, she kept waddling up and down her perch in an agitated state. We were living in Bournemouth, so no tsunamis or earthquakes were likely.
She then started imitating the phone ringing. Polly would often do this but only after the phone had started to ring. This time the phone remained silent. She didn’t. Ring. Ring. Ring.
We’d just gone to bed when the phone did ring for real. Mum answered it to be told her brother had died that evening of a heart attack. So maybe our Polly was at least a little psychic.
Joanna Hull, a British pet psychic, thinks so. She says she helps people relate to their pets (past and present) through her ability to psychically connect with, and talk to animals.
Madam Mountjoy believed she had the same ability, making her connections through her cat. A month after cutting his claws, I was asked to make a house call. Antac was behaving strangely. ‘Spooked,’ the medium said.
‘Possessed,’ she reiterated as we stood in her kitchen and watched Antac back against the fridge door and spray urine up it. ‘He’s never done that before,’ she added indignantly.
I spotted a new cat flap in the backdoor and was able to explain Antac’s spraying as being part of redefining his territory. Nothing to do with spirits, evil or otherwise.
A look of relief crossed Madam Mountjoy’s face on hearing that. She floated across the kitchen towards me, her pentangles dangling out.
‘You’ve raised my spirits, Mr Welshman,’ she declared. ‘Is there anything I can do to raise yours? Massage your aura, perhaps?’
I swear Antac winked at me. Did he know what she had in mind? I certainly did. And beat a hasty retreat.