Do Animals Know That They Are Dying? I Think My Cat Did.

Wild Things
Slate’s animal blog.
Nov. 4 2013 12:52 PM

I Am Convinced My Cat Told Me She Was Dying. Am I Crazy?

Stately Joan

Photo by Adrian Kinloch

Before I tell you this story, you need to know something about me, which is that I am a brain in a body, activated by a complex series of physical, chemical, and biological processes. I am neither religious nor spiritual; I do not believe in God or heaven or an afterlife. I don’t put stock in parapsychology, telepathy, or clairvoyance. I think that Dr. Doolittle was a great guy, but there’s no way he could talk to the animals.

Jessica Winter Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is a Slate senior editor.

And yet, despite all these shortcomings, I’m convinced that my cat came to me one night last winter and told me she was dying.

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I can explain. Our petite and elegant calico, Joan, age six, had been recently diagnosed with kidney disease. We’d caught it late because she hadn’t exhibited any symptoms until the situation had become dire. My husband and I didn’t yet know if she had months or years to live, but friends had showered us with stories of cats in similar shape as Joan who lived long-ish and happy lives on fluids and meds. We were shocked and terribly sad, but we were also optimistic.

Late one night, I was in the living room, reading a book. Joan leapt up onto the sofa with me. (She leapt up onto the sofa, people! Grievously sick cats don’t leap!) I expected her to do what she always did: arrange herself just so on my chest, tuck her wee head under my chin, and purr hard enough to chatter my teeth. This time, though, she arranged and she tucked but she didn’t purr. She just sat there, absolutely still, little wet nose gently pressed against my larynx. “Why won’t you purr for me, Joan?” I asked her. To my own bewilderment, I began weeping. We remained like this for a while, me tearfully pleading with Joan to purr, Joan playing her own private game of Statue.

Then, after some time had passed, Joan sat up and struck a regal pose, worthy of Patience and Fortitude. And she did another thing I’d never seen her do before. She closed her eyes and tilted her head back, back, as if she could feel the sun from another hemisphere on her face. She held this position for a long moment. I heard myself say, “I understand, Joan.” After a few more beats, she hopped on the back of the couch to purr—to purr!—and groom herself, seemingly unconcerned. Meanwhile, I sat with my head in my hands, devastated, because my cat had just told me, as clearly and eloquently as I could imagine, that her death was near. And she was right: Her condition deteriorated rapidly in the weeks to come.

This opens up an epistemological paradox—call it Schrödinger’s Joan, wherein the puzzle isn’t whether or not the cat is alive or dead, but whether or not the cat is cognizant of her own future life-or-death state. I “know” on an emotional, instinctive level that Joan told me she was dying. At the same time, I “know” on a rational, intellectual level that Joan did not tell me she was dying. She was highly intelligent and empathic (if I were in a bad mood or under the weather, she’d spend a lot of time with one paw on my arm or knee), and she had deductive skills that could mimic telepathy (my husband says he often knew I would be home in five minutes, because that’s when Joan would jump onto the living-room window sill), and her aesthetic judgment was impeccable (she would vigorously mark our speakers whenever we played Talking Heads—especially Remain in Light—or a David Lynch film). But even a cat-genius like Joan would lack a concept of death, and she would certainly lack the cortical resources to communicate that concept to me. And even if she did turn out to be a clairvoyant, super-evolved cat from the future—possible!—I would have lacked the receptors to interpret her messages.

So what happened here, exactly? I called up some animal behavior experts and developed three working hypotheses.

Hypothesis No. 1: No, Joan Did Not Tell Me She Was Dying
“It’s plausible that she had a sense not of death, but that she was not feeling well, and you recognized that,” says Sam Gosling, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, whose work includes research on how animal behavior can contextualize our understanding of human psychology. “She would not have come to you with an intention of making a statement, but she communicated with you nonetheless, because you understood.” But what was Joan communicating? “She might have been saying, ‘I feel bad.’ She might have wanted to cuddle. Or she might have been holding herself in that unusual way just because she felt like crap.”

Gosling also warns me against confirmation bias. “One thing you have to keep in mind is that this”—my premonition of Joan’s premonition—“sadly happened to be true. If it had turned out not to be true, you wouldn’t be writing this story.”

In the moment, I sheepishly agree with Gosling. On reflection, though, I’m not as sure—Joan had never behaved in this way before, so there was no previous behavioral data for me to be biased against. But that only underscores the difficulty of scientifically evaluating my question: I’d need to gather info on hundreds of similar scenarios before I could draw any firm conclusions. As it happens, another go-to expert has some relevant data.

Hypothesis No. 2: Yes, Joan Totally Told Me She Was Dying
In his book Cat Daddy, Jackson Galaxy, host of Animal Planet’s My Cat from Hell, writes about his aged Benny, who, much like Joan, came to Galaxy late one night and told him that his time had come. “There’s no true English-to-cat dictionary,” Galaxy says, “but there’s no doubt that this is a moment of clarity between two beings.”

Galaxy kindly spends an hour on the phone with me, and after a while it starts to feel like The X-Files: Conspiracy of Cats, with Galaxy as visionary Mulder and me as literal-minded Scully. “Animals are very present,” Galaxy says, “and they operate in very simple primary colors: I’m happy. I’m sad. I miss you. I’m hungry. But they are cognizant of deeper truths. Knowing your own death—we all know it. When Joan tilted her head back, that moment was her recognition of her own mortality.”

I want to believe! And Galaxy really does work miracles on My Cat from Hell, so I have no doubt that he can achieve moments of clarity with cats. I just doubt that I can.

Hypothesis No. 3: Joan Effectively Told Me She Was Dying Without Intending To
A couple more experts help me find a middle way between Galaxy and Gosling. “Joan did not have a sense that she was dying, but she knew she wasn’t feeling well in an unusual way, and she expressed that, and you interpreted it,” says Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado. “Sure, your interpretation could have been wrong—but you weren’t wrong, and there’s a lot of value in that. She was literally sending out complex signals with visual, auditory, and even olfactory aspects to them, and you were sensitive to them. It’s not voodoo.”

 “The two of you had devised, without realizing it, a system of communication,” says Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at William and Mary and the author of How Animals Grieve. “She knew she could get something across to you. You could read each other’s signals because of all the day-to-day routines and small engagements you had with each other. This kind of communication doesn’t depend on being a big-brained animal like an elephant or a dolphin. You wouldn’t expect it from a snake or a turtle, but for a mammal you knew well, this is plausible.”

What isn’t plausible, King says, is the idea that Joan was semaphoring her own mortality. This is comforting, obviously. It also draws a clear boundary line so that we can give Joan credit where cognitive credit is due, but stop short of anthropomorphizing her. “We don’t need animals to be humans,” King says. “We don’t have to make Joan into a little person. She was Joan. She was great as she was.”

Our beloved veterinarian put Joan to sleep on a freezing February evening, a month after the night in question. My husband and I took that afternoon off from work. We got into bed on either side of Joan, and she and I pressed foreheads together while Remain in Light played softly on the iPad. She purred away, and after a while, my husband and I fell asleep. When I woke up from the nap, the room was dark and silent, and Joan was staring steadily and placidly at me, not blinking, not purring. I think she was telling me something then, too, but I’ll never be able to prove it.

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