Many pet owners swear their pets can "read their minds" - but can pets really have psychic abilities? Could your cat know that you are about to come home before you're even in your neighborhood? Does your dog know when you're sad and in need of some affection? There is an ongoing debate about whether an animals' "psychic instinct" is possible or just a coincidental. Most skepticism results from the fact that, well, most believers' claims can't be proven as fact.
The idea that animals have special talents is long standing. Throughout history, writers have recorded stories of animals reported to have amazing powers. In the summer of 2010, soccer fans watched Paul the octopus from the Sea Life aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, predict every correct outcome of Germany's World Cup games, in addition to picking the overall winner: Spain. The Oprah Show featured a dog that could apparently do math.
Biologist and researcher Rupert Sheldrake was one of the first to open a serious study on pets' psychic abilities with his well-known book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, published in 1999. Sheldrake believes animals may have abilities that have been lost or forgotten by most humans. These abilities are not "magic" but instead very likely rooted in a mechanism we do not yet fully understand.
Sheldrake identifies three major areas of unexplained perception in animals.
1. Premonitions: This includes sensing earthquakes before they happen or knowing that a person is about to have an epileptic attack. It's believed that the animal detects a unique scent right before the event, or experiences a sensitivity to magnetic fields, but these theories are just beginning to be identified and understood.
2. Sense of Direction: This refers to an animal that can find the location of a person, whether living or dead. Most of us have heard about the "incredible journey" stories of pets that travel vast distances over unknown territory to find their human companions. There are documented reports of dogs that had previously never left their home or been apart from their owner, but after their master passes away, the pet ends up leaving home to sit beside the beloved master's grave.
3. Telepathy: This is a psychic connection between a pet and its owner. Telepathy is most obviously demonstrated by cats that intently focus on a person's face or jump onto an emotionally stressed owner's lap with what can only be described as a look of concern.
Sheldrake suggests that telepathy explains why some animals know when an owner is coming home. While this is an attractive and even sentimental idea, several studies have shown no direct evidence that this is so. Rather, it's believed that this "telepathic" pet may merely be taking clues from familiar sights or sounds, such as the afternoon sun in a window at the time one's master usually arrives home.
Other people have claimed that some animals can "talk" to their owners. From a horse in seventeenth-century France that allegedly compute mathematical calculations and keep his master from harm, to birds that can ask for food when hungry, the theory that animals can masterfully use language to achieve a goal is another that is difficult to prove true.
Many people have challenged these stories and proposals, but there are still few definitive studies to suggest it is true that pets are telepathic. If you have a pet, you undoubtedly have an opinion already about the way in which you communicate and they understand. And, like most things, just because you can't prove it's true, doesn't mean it's definitely false.