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Pet psychics – a veterinary reading

By Dr Chris Shivelton Queen

 

I talk to animals. There, I’ve said it. I’ve always talked to them, ever since I was a young child and still do, every day, both at home and at work. Now before you throw down this article in a fit of scientifically indignant rage, let me clarify one very important point: not once has the animal I have spoken to answered me back. Why? Because it turns out – spoiler alert – I am not a pet psychic. And nor is any other human on this planet. But those psychics among you would have already predicted me saying that.

 

Hardly new

Claiming to be able to communicate with animals is not a new, modern phenomenon. Throughout history, various cultures have had stories and legends about individuals with the ability to understand or speak with animals. These often stemmed from spiritual beliefs or folklore.

The early 20th century saw a rise in interest in the occult and psychic phenomena, including claims of telepathic communication with animals. Some practitioners, such as Elma Stucky, who claimed in the 1920s to be able to communicate with horses, and Martin Pistole, a South African “dog whisperer”, became famous despite their claims lacking any scientific credibility.

More recently, individuals claiming to be animal communicators and pet psychics, such as Sonya Fitzpatrick and Beth Lee-Crowther, have become celebrities, publishing books and appearing on TV and across other media, all in the face of their claims remaining unproven and lacking scientific validation.

So why are they popular? There are several key reasons why psychics of any ilk attract a degree of fascination. One of these is the pure entertainment value. We know, deep down, that the whole concept of psychic abilities and telepathic communication is – how to put this? – dubious and yet those to make such claims are often larger-than-life characters and quite fun to watch. They’re in show business and we’re all looking for entertainment in this world.

Then there are those people who are, perhaps, struggling with trying to make sense of aspects of the world that seem out of kilter and are just looking for explanations.

 

Animal communication

The current understanding of animal communication is that it is sophisticated but not human-like. Animals make use of a diverse range of signals for communication, including vocalisations, body language and scent markings. They are able to convey information about dangers, availability of resources, such as food, social hierarchies, mating and basic emotions like fear and aggression.

However, current scientific understanding suggests that animal communication, while complex, lacks the level of complexity and nuance observed in human language. Animals typically lack the ability to convey abstract ideas, complex emotions or engage in elaborate storytelling, for example.

Communication between humans and animals is further complicated by significant differences in sensory perception and cognitive abilities. For example, dogs primarily experience the world through their key senses of olfaction and hearing, while birds have an exceptional capacity for visual perception.

Additionally, animals generally possess different cognitive capacities for processing information, memory and problem-solving compare to humans. These discrepancies lead to challenges in interpreting animal communication accurately and humans might misinterpret subtle cues or project their own emotions onto animals, leading to misunderstandings.

What are some alternative explanations to the claims of pet psychics? One is the misinterpretation of cues. Often, seemingly “psychic” behaviour can be explained by misinterpretations of subtle animal cues. For instance, a dog whimpering might not be conveying sadness but discomfort due to a physical issue.

Another is anthropomorphism, the act of projecting human emotions onto animals. We all do it – just take a look at any social media stream! Anthropomorphism can lead to misinterpretations of an animal’s behaviour. For example, a cat hissing and arching its back might not be displaying anger towards a specific person but simply expressing defensiveness due to feeling threatened.

Then there is confirmation bias, which is the tendency to interpret ambiguous behaviour in a way that confirms pre-existing beliefs. For example, someone who believes that their pet can read their mind might interpret any coincidental behaviour as proof of this ability, even if it could be explained by other factors.

 

What techniques do pet psychics use?

While individual pet psychics or communicators might employ specific methods in their process, some common approaches used by such individuals include the following:

 

Cold reading – this involves using general statements, open-ended questions and vague observations to gather information from a client and then use these to appear insightful. The psychic might make some broad, general statements that apply to most pets or situations, like “your pet might be feeling anxious lately”.

They also ask open-ended questions that can be interpreted in various ways, allowing the client to provide information without realising they’re doing so. Questions like “can you tell me a little about your pet’s personality?” are good examples. Then there are vague observations that can be interpreted in different ways, like “I’m sensing a strong emotional connection between you and your pet.”

Most people have strong emotional connections with their pets, hence why they have a pet in the first place and the fact that they’re willing to call on a pet psychic is further proof that they have, perhaps, an even stronger connection, or at least desire to feel close to their pet.

 

Hot reading – this involves the active gathering of information about the pet and owner before the meeting/consultation, either directly through prior discussions or subtly by gleaning clues during the reading itself. This could be in the form of direct information, with the psychic learning about the pet’s age, breed, personality, behaviour issues, or even the owner’s concerns through prior conversations or an electronic form.

Subtle information gathering could manifest as the psychic subtly asking seemingly unrelated questions or observing the pet owner’s behaviour in order to gather clues, such as noticing a leash with a specific chew toy attached, hinting at potential chewing problems.

 

Confirmation bias – as mentioned before, this is a cognitive bias where people tend to favour information that confirms their existing beliefs and disregard information that contradicts them.

 

Potential harms

What are some of the harms associated with relying on a pet psychic? One obvious potential harm is the risk of delaying or forgoing actual veterinary care.

Pet psychics (who are not also vets!) are not qualified to diagnose medial conditions.

Relying on a pet psychic or an animal communicator for diagnoses can lead to dangerous delays or omission of necessary veterinary care, potentially worsening existing medical issues.

Pet psychics often lack training in animal behaviour too, else they’d be animal behaviourists and not pet psychics, and their advice might not be based on sound scientific principles around animal training. This can lead to inappropriate or ineffective solutions that could exacerbate existing behavioural issues in pets.

Vets can provide reliable resources and referrals to qualified animal behaviourists or trainers.

 

Some final (psychic) thoughts

While it is a lovely, romantic idea to be able to speak with animals and the notion of there being those among us who can converse with our furred, feathered and scaled fiends like Dr Dolittle is one that I find hugely appealing, the fact is that the claims made by animal communicators, regardless of whether or not they pop up on major TV stations, are in no way supported by any credible scientific evidence.

In many ways it is a crying shame that pet psychics aren’t real because I for one would strongly advocate for them becoming the most important member of any veterinary clinic’s team, and would welcome the ability to get my patients’ input and perspective on their own healthcare!

 

Dr Chris Shivelton Queen, BSc, BVSc, MRCVS



aka The Nerdy Vet, is a self-confessed geek and first opinion small animal vet. He has always had a strong interest in cutting-edge technology and how it can help vet teams in their professional lives. He has spoken at various technology conferences around the world and contributed articles to a number of publications over the years, in addition to his own blog (thenerdyvet). When he is not tending to the needs of his patients, he can usually be found either in VR, jumping from a plane or exploring some mountain or wadi.

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