I have tried to avoid this topic since it is not by even the most tortured stretch of the imagination really about medicine, even most forms of alternative medicine. Unfortunately, all too often I see people making medical decisions for their pets based on what supposed pet psychics (or “animal communicators” which seems to be the currently favored marketing term) tell them, so I feel obliged to state the seemingly obvious: No one can communicate psychically or telepathically with your pet, and you should not pay someone to make up stuff about what your pet is supposedly thinking! You certainly should not make decisions about your pet’s healthcare or about euthanasia and quality of life based on what a psychic tells you your pet is thinking.
The details of the fraud and self-deception engaged in by pet psychics really are no different from those employed by people who claim to speak with the dead, divine the future, and otherwise know things through mystical mind powers. Joe Nickell, a well-known investigator of paranormal phenomenon, has addressed the subject of animal communicators in his article Psychic Pets and Pet Psychics. Such charlatans use a variety of techniques, but the bulk of their show consists of cold reading, a set of strategies designed to take advantage of the subject’s desire for the psychic to be right and to help them communicate with their pet. Some of these strategies are described by Nickell in his article:
1. Noting the obvious. Fitzpatrick (2002) visits an animal clinic with a couple and their infant daughter to tell them which dog is right for their family. After the selection is narrowed to three choices, each is brought out in turn. The first is ambivalent; the second ignores everyone; and the third, Patty, greets the couple and nuzzles the child. Sonya writes her choice on a slip of paper and it proves to be the same the couple made: Patty. The audience applauds: Patty was apparently their choice too! (I know she was mine!)
2. Making safe statements. Fitzpatrick (2002) announces that one pooch “says” he wants to go out more often, and the dog’s owners accept the assertion. Similarly, Gerri Leigh (1992) tells the owner of an outgoing little dog, who immediately licks Leigh’s hand, that the animal “fears no one”; but then she quickly adds that it is “not an unconditional lover.” She continues by stating that the pet is “independent” and “not a yes dog.” Such virtually universal declarations are not apt to be challenged.
3. Asking questions. Psychics frequently seem to provide information when they are in reality fishing for it. The asking of a question may, if it is correct, credit the reader with a hit; otherwise it will seem an innocent query. For instance, Fitzpatrick (2002) asks a dog owner, “When was there someone who was with him who went away?” (Unfortunately, this is too good a hit, since the young woman seems puzzled and replies that it could have been various persons—possibly, one imagines, former boyfriends or other acquaintances.) Questioning also keeps the reader from proceeding too far down a wrong path and allows for mid-course correction.
4. Offering vague statements that most people can apply specifically to themselves. Alleged psychics take advantage of what is known as “the Barnum effect”—after showman P. T. Barnum who strove to provide something for everyone (French et al. 1991). They learn that people will respond to a vague, generalized statement by trying to fit it to their own situation. Thus Fitzpatrick (2002) tells the owner of a pet iguana that the creature had experienced “a move.” Now most people can associate a “move” with their pet: either when they acquired it, when they changed residences, or when they left it with someone to go on vacation, etc. Thus the pet psychic was credited with a hit (never mind that she incorrectly referred to the female iguana as “he”).
5. Returning messages to animals. People who are convinced pets give information to psychics may be willing to believe the reverse. Thus Fitzpatrick (2002) claims to give animals “messages”—for example a clarification of something by the owner—by silently concentrating for a moment.
It doesn’t take much effort to expose the shallow and vacuous nature of the “communication” a psychic is having with an animal. Karen Stollznow illustrates this with a simple experiment she has written about as The Ballad of Jed (and the Pet Psychic). She borrowed a neighbor’s cat and invited a psychic over to perform a reading. The interview was a series of guesses, attempts to fish for information, and confabulation of vague but plausible stories about the cat. Almost none of the few details offered by the psychic were correct based on the known history of the cat.
The video below is a good example of such a cold reading (at least in form, though since the breeder and the psychic worked together to produce a series of videos demonstrating the psychic’s work, it could in fact be an example of a hot reading, in which the psychic has advance information about the subject they are reading).
The psychic begins by noting the obvious, that the pet (who is clambering all over the owner wagging her tail and licking) is affectionate and loves the owner. She makes a series of vague and relatively neutral statements like “she is something else.” She starts talking about how the dog “likes to be seen” but doesn’t necessarily like to be petted or shown affection by strangers since it might “mess up my hair” (at which point the dog leaves the owner and jumps on the psychic to get some attention). She says the dog is “happy and loving” but also “conservative,” “very playful, but not too much so,” and so on. Such descriptions could be easily applied to almost any dog of this age exhibiting the kind of behavior she shows in the video, and they certainly don’t require any special telepathic communication or insight. At one point, the psychic suggests the dog could be used in one kind of service work (“canine good citizenship”) and when the owner offers “I was thinking of using her in therapy work,” the psychic responds that she was just about to say that.
I don’t suggest that most animal communicators are deliberately lying, though undoubtedly some are. Often, psychics believe they really are in touch with the living or dead animals they claim to communicate with. That they are deluded rather than lying does not do much, unfortunately, to mitigate the fact that they are deceiving people, often pet owners in grief or struggling with heartrending decisions concerning their pet’s well-being.
When I am asked why it matter whether someone gets comfort from untrue information about their pets’ thoughts, I have to answer on both a philosophical and a practical level. Philosophically, I believe the truth matters and that deception, intentional or not, is wrong. Even comforting false beliefs are still false, and they are cheats that deny us the chance to face honestly and directly the truths of our lives. I don’t recommend my clients lie to their children when a pet dies, telling them it “went to the farm,” because it seems wrong to me to try and avoid pain by denying the true nature of reality. Likewise, I cannot convince myself that it is ok to lie to a pet owner and claim to be hearing the thoughts or feelings of their pet.
Such philosophical objections are, of course, personal and subject to debate. However, there are also more pragmatic reasons to disabuse people of the myth of pet psychics. People often consult psychics during times of stress and uncertainty seeking information to help them make decisions. They may want to know if their pet is in pain so they can make decisions about medical treatments. Or an owner may be thinking about euthanizing a severely ill pet and want some guidance from the pet concerning its feelings or opinions about the quality of its life. These situations and decisions are difficult and painful, and at such times people are even more easily deceived by their own needs and desires and by the tricks of psychics and mystics.
The most benign of pet psychics are merely psychological mirrors; they reflect the owners feeling much like a psychotherapist. But others go farther and make definitive statements about an animal’s thoughts or wishes. I once saw a dog with bone cancer in severe pain whose owners denied the obvious symptoms of limping and crying and were convinced their homeopathic pain medication was working, all because according to a pet psychic the dog said he was comfortable. And I’ve seen terminally ill dogs suffering terribly whose owners refused to consider euthanasia because an animal communicator told them their pet wanted to stay with them longer. Decisions based on fairy tales and deception are not likely to be good decisions. And because our pets truly cannot speak for themselves, the stories told by charlatans who claim to be speaking for them are not likely to represent their real feelings or to further their interests.