Mistaken Communication: What Are Animals Really Telling Us


Is animal behavior sometimes misinterpreted? Arguably, the leading misinterpreters are so-called animal communicators.

People are somehow desperate to know what their pet is thinking, particularly if there’s a behavior problem .Inexplicably,  instead seeing a veterinarian or a science-based expert in animal behavior, such as a veterinary behaviorist or certified animal behavior consultant, some prefer the pet psychic.

In a Boston Globe story Sy Montgomery indicates she feels the same, pointing out how an animal communicator mistook what an elephant was communicating.

This happens all the time regarding dogs and cats. Some animal communicators are longtime pet owners, and have a good intuitive feel for what the animal may be telling their owners….Maybe. But, overall, it’s seriously ridiculous, and potentially hazardous to the pet. For example, an animal communicator may say, “Your cat is going outside the litter because he’s mad at you ….”

Our pets don’t do whatever they do out of spite or to ‘get back at us.’ So now the communicator offers advice – which may do no further harm, or may actually create a worsening problem. Either way, if it’s a new behavior, the right answer is to see a veterinarian. There may be a medical explanation, such as hyperthyroid disease or diabetes as two examples. Of course, unless the medical condition is taken care of by a veterinarian no animal communicator will help. And by offering advice (whatever it is) which doesn’t involve seeing a veterinarian, a medical condition may worsen over time. What’s more the behavior advice may not be especially helpful, even IF the assessment of the problem is on target.

It’s no different with wild animals. Montgomery recalls a volunteer  at the Birute Galdikas rehabilitation and conservation center for orangutans in Borneo (where I spent time about three decades ago)  went to hug an adult orang that she only previously met once. Truth is all great apes do hug. Dogs and cats don’t naturally do that, so when we go to hug them, they may not take it so well.

I recall one animal communicator telling a forlorn pet owner to hug more often, when she said whenever she went to hug her dog, her pup would hide.

The communicator’s advice was to coax the dog from under the bed (at least the communicator didn’t say ‘force the dog out’), and hug and hug until the dog has to love it. Following this advice the dog may experience what’s called learned helplessness, and essentially give up. The dog is not only not enjoying the experience, but is suffering psychological agony. Some dogs dogs may ‘fight back’ and bite. Many dogs and cats do indeed learn to tolerate human hugs, many even enjoy the attention….but it’s not natural for dogs and cats to accept hugs or to give them, though some dogs have learned to hug people. In any case, advice from this animal communicator might have led to a dog bite, and most certainly didn’t enhance the human/animal bond.

Back to Borneo, Montgomery says the volunteer hugged the orangutan, and then was summarily pushed to the ground. Orangs are strong, and the offended great ape could have done serious harm to he, but that was obviously not the intent. Only the volunteer’s  ego was bruised, coming away thinking the orangutan doesn’t love her.

What if I meet the same woman who hugged the ape on say a Monday, and then approached her and without warning gave her a great big bear hug the next day, she likely would back off, maybe smacking with her handbag even.

Animals are always communicating something, whether it’s our dogs at home,  an orangutan in Borneo or elephant in Asia or Africa. Our ability to translate what they’re communicating  is dependent on our understanding of context, the species, etc. It’s not a matter of reading minds. And on occasion, even science will fail. After all, we’re not dogs, orangutans or elephants.