By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 10 April 2011)
There are many anecdotal accounts of cats displaying what appear to be supernatural abilities. These typically fall into three categories – prediction, navigation, and intuition.
Many cats know when their owners will soon be arriving home, even if it’s not at the usual time. A cat will often grow excited or run to the door some time in advance of her human companion’s arrival, or hide under the bed well in advance of a stranger’s approach. Cats have also been known to hide or rush out of buildings, bringing their kittens with them, prior to earthquakes. Such behaviours have led many people to believe that cats have predictive abilities. However, many, if not all, of these behaviours are attributable to the cat’s superior sensory abilities.
Cats can hear sounds and detect smells and vibrations that people cannot. In a sense, this does give them predictive abilities. They can hear an owner’s distinctive footfalls from a distance, before he turns the key in the lock, and perhaps even recognize the sounds made by his particular mode of transportation whether it is a car, a bicycle, or even a skateboard. As for earthquakes, there have been several theories put forth. One is that animals feel subtle vibrations that precede an earthquake and another is that they are sensitive to charged ions released into the atmosphere before an earthquake occurs.
There are many stories of cats that have traveled great distances to find their owners, such as the dramatic tale of a Persian named Howie who fought his way across 1,000 miles of rough Australian outback to return to his family. There is no doubt that cats have superior wayfinding abilities. However, when a magnet is attached to a cat, his navigation skills are disrupted, because in addition to using the sun for guidance, cats make use of the earth’s magnetic field. As such, the ability of a cat to return home over large distances is probably attributable to his finely tuned perceptive abilities rather than some sort of supernatural power.
Often, when all seems calm, a cat will become suddenly alarmed, staring intently at something that humans can’t perceive, perhaps even growling and hissing. Such behaviour has caused many to believe that cats can tune in to the spirit world. But a cat that appears to be reacting to nothing is likely picking up on some sound or smell emanating from the material world that is too subtle or far away for humans to register.
Many cats do appear to have intuitive powers. For example, they often know when the people they care about are unhappy or not feeling well, even if those people don’t show it overtly, or at least not in any way that other humans would recognize. There are cats and dogs that can detect cancerous growths and predict seizures in humans. A now-famous cat named Oscar has the ability to predict which people will die within 4 hours at the nursing home where he lives.
As impressive as these feats are, the most likely explanation is that metabolic changes that accompany illness are perceptible to cats due to their finely tuned senses. Being quite sensitive, cats may also pick up on subtle aspects of body language in their human companions that indicate sadness or illness.
There are a number of reputable believers in feline psychic ability. Those who assert that cats and other animals possess supernatural intuition include Cambridge University’s world-renowned biologist, Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, who has studied more than 1,000 reports of psychic connections between people and animals.
Sheldrake has noted that some cats and dogs respond to the death or suffering of their owners even when far away from them, predict dangerous events such as bombings and earthquakes, know when a loved one is calling on the phone before the call has been answered, and hide in anticipation of a visit to the veterinarian well before their owners haul out the pet carrier. In addition to Dr. Sheldrake, other researchers have asserted that cats are clairvoyant and telepathic, including Dr. J.B. Rhine.
Hailed as the father of modern-day parapsychology, J.B. Rhine studied Psi Trailing in animals, a phenomenon whereby animals travel long distances to find their owners. Animals navigate using the earth’s magnetic field, which explains how so many of them have been able to return to a prior home even when they have been transported a great distance away. However, magnetic field navigation doesn’t explain cases of lost pets that returned to their human families after those families had moved far away to places the animals had never been.
Skeptics, such as renowned zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris, claim that in such cases, a stray animal that looks like the original pet happens to show up at the family home, and wishful thinking causes the owners to assume that the hopeful stray is actually a long-lost pet. But some of the animals that have turned up on their families’ doorsteps have unique features that were used to positively identify them.
Sugar, a cat that found his family 1,500 miles away in their new home, was recognized due to his unusual bone deformity. In preparation for an impending move, the family had regretfully given Sugar to their neighbours as they thought the long car journey would be too hard on him, but traveling on foot by himself, Sugar somehow managed to find them. Sugar walked from California to Oklahoma, an incredible journey that took more than a year, to be reunited with the family he loved.
A similar authenticated case is that of a veterinarian who moved from New York to California, leaving his cat in the care of others back in New York. Several months later, a cat that looked much like his came strolling into his new residence in California. Not inclined to make assumptions, the vet thoroughly inspected the new arrival. To his amazement, he found a telltale bone growth on the cat’s tail, specifically the fourth vertebra, the result of a long-ago bite that his cat had sustained. Thus, he determined that his cat had indeed travelled over 2,500 miles of unfamiliar terrain to find him.
The Debate Continues
Of course it’s quite possible that the widespread phenomena noted by Sheldrake, Rhine, and other researchers have scientific explanations that have not yet been discovered. In the meantime, the skeptics will remain skeptical, asserting that much of the evidence for feline extrasensory perception is anecdotal and probably the result of coincidence, while believers in feline psychic abilities will continue to believe, asserting that such phenomena are too common and universal to be dismissed.
For more articles on the way cats think and the reasons they do the things they do, visit the main Cat Psychology, Communication, and Behaviour page. For a full list of cat articles, see the main Cats page.
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