We can all name at least a handful of fictional characters who can communicate with animals: Tarzan, Aquaman, the Horse Whisperer (a character appearing in a Nichols Evans novel and Robert Redford film), Dr. Doolittle and others.
Of course, most people communicate with animals all the time; pet lovers are famous for cooing baby talk to their animals and repeatedly asking banal, rhetorical questions like, "Do you want some food?" or "Who's a good boy? Who's a good boy?"
But pet psychics claim to do something more remarkable: They speak to animals and get information back. This is done, they say, by some sort of interspecies psychic power or telepathy.
Of course, psychic communication between humans has never been scientifically proven, so claims of psychic communication between animals and humans begins on very shaky ground. At least humans can share a common language; how a psychic could possibly translate the thoughts and intentions of a parakeet, fish, hamster, horse, spider or any other animal into human language is a mystery.
Yet thousands of people in real life claim to have exactly such a remarkable ability. For example, a Canadian woman named Lauren Bode claims she's a real-life horse whisperer.
Bode says that several horses at Toronto's Far Enough Farm telepathically told her that they are upset about plans to move them from their current location to another farm nearby. They are anxious about the June 30 move and worried about whether they will like their new home.
Bode did not explain how exactly the horses told her this, nor how they got wind of the news about the planned relocation; perhaps they learned enough English to eavesdrop on their trainers' conversations. If so, it would not be the first time that a horse was able to fool humans into believing it could understand languages.
A 2008 poll found that 67 percent of pet owners say they understand their animals' purrs, barks and other noises, and 62 percent said that when they speak, their pet understands them (or at least their intent).
One in five owners claim that they and their pets understand each other completely. One-quarter of cat owners said they completely understood their pets' sounds, while only 16 percent of dog owners said they were fluent in barks. This is not necessarily psychic power, but intuition, guessing and common sense.
Even something as simple as tone of voice carries a huge amount of information about intent; sharp, loud phrases like "Stop!" convey a clearly different meaning than a smooth, sing-song phrase like, "Hey buddy!"
Most animals (including humans) pick up plenty of accurate nonverbal cues about each other's intents. And, of course, just because pet owners (or psychics) think they communicate great with their pets doesn't mean that the other party feels the same way; just ask any couple.
Testing Pet Psychics
One major problem with trying to prove pet psychic abilities is that usually there's no way to know if the information they give is accurate or not. For example, if a concerned pet owner consults a psychic about her kitty's unusual behavior and is told that her cat says he's acting out because he doesn't like the color of the new drapes in the living room, or a neighbor dog looked at him menacingly, or he senses tension in the marriage, who's to say the psychic is wrong? The psychic could be misunderstanding the cat's messages - or even making it all up - and there's no way to prove otherwise.
Even though thousands of people claim to be able to communicate with animals, there hasn't been a single scientific test proving their abilities. Professional pet psychics often sell books and teach seminars about their power but don't prove that they can actually do what they claim.
Testing the claims of pet psychics would be fairly easy to do:
Put an animal in a room.
Do something specific the animal experiences for a few minutes - feed it a certain treat, play with a specific toy, animal or person, etc.
Take the animal to another location nearby (but out of sight and earshot of the original room) and have three different pet psychics ask the animal what it did in the other room just a few minutes ago.
Then simply see if the psychics know the correct answer (or even agree with each other). Anybody want to place bets?
Many pet psychics not only claim to get messages from live animals, but dead ones as well (for $85 per hour or more).
The problem of pet psychics taking advantage of grieving pet owners plagues people like Dr. Wally Sife, founder of The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to providing grief counseling for people who have lost beloved animals. At its upcoming 2012 conference, the issue of pet psychics exploiting grief-stricken pet owners will be addressed.