Do Dogs & Cats Really Know When They’re Going To Die?

Cat and dog together
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We've all experienced the feeling that our pet has a sixth sense. Living with animals, we may start to get the sense that they think just like we do, but they don't. Dogs and cats see, hear, and smell the world in a totally different way from us, which humans often find mysterious.

What surprises many pet owners most of all is when it comes time for their pet to pass on. Our pets often tell us that they're ready to die, and the feeling can be a little unsettling. But how much do our cats and dogs understand about their death?

The internet is full of stories of dogs and cats that seem to know they were going to die.

Quora user Rohan Malik described his dog, Buddy, who started whining in the middle of the night. Rohan explained, "I woke up and saw him looking at me in a helpless state and begging me to pick him up. I woke up others and put him on bed and that's it, he breathed his last within 15 seconds of everyone waking up. I guess, he spent [his] entire remaining energy to remain alive to bid us farewell and not die without seeing us in his last moments ! we miss you buddy!!"

Slate writer Jessica Winter described how her desperately ill cat leaped up onto the couch. She noted, "Grievously sick cats don't leap!" She sat there for awhile, not doing her usually purr, and then she struck a dignified pose. Jessica explained, "My cat had just told me, as clearly and eloquently as I could imagine, that her death was near."

Another Quora user Sharon Mcclain explained that when her dog was sick, she gave her a look that said everything. "One morning went to her bed and she looked right into my eyes, I cannot explain that look but it was the saddest look ever and almost as if she was telling me."

Adorable yawning baby kitten
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But is there any truth the this idea that our pets might understand when they are going to pass on?

Most vets agree that it's impossible to know for sure whether or not our pets understand when they're about to die. However, there are undeniable patterns to some of these stories. Pets often turn inward, shunning attention from others. Other pets more turn to their loving humans for more affection than usual.

Another argument for why our animals are able to "predict" their death is that they have more heightened senses than us. So our pets may simply be perceiving something concrete — smell, sound, sight, etc. — that we can't perceive at all. For example both dogs and cats have incredible senses of smell, so they could be detecting a telling shift in their own scent. So maybe it's not a sixth sense or a mystery, but just that our pets see the world differently.

Along those same lines, one explanation may be that your animal can sense when their body changes from feeling bad to feeling a totally different level of bad. Marc Bekoff, emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, suggests that maybe our pets recognize the difference between sick and dire. They may not know what they're feeling means death, but they know that it's not good.

Dog backlight silhouette in sunset
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Most scientists agree that animals understand the concept of death.

Biologist Joyce Poole chronicled the behavior of elephants in her book Coming of Age with Elephants. In the book, Poole observed a mother elephant grieving a lost child. Scientists have also witnessed chimpanzees, magpies, and llamas grieving. So it's pretty clear that animals understand what death means, and many different animals grieve for loved ones.

Plenty of anecdotal evidence exists that our dogs and cats grieve when they lose a family member, human, or animal.

Also, our animals are extremely in tune with our relationship. Cats watch us constantly, and they observe our lives. So the first being to notice a major change, even if its inside them, might be our kitties. In a similar way, dogs love to follow us everywhere. Dogs feel our social bonds strongly, so if they sense that something might alter those bonds, they can't help but react.

While we may never know if our pets can predict their death, we also can't rule it out.

If nothing else, this should teach us to listen to our pets. They understand more than we realize. So if you know your pet is acting totally differently, and you don't already know what might be the cause, then listen to them and seek help. Because our pets can tell us more than we realize.