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DailyMail, June 20, 2024
by Rupert Sheldrake

Piglet the Jack Russell seemed to be fading away. He was half blind, barely able to walk and spent most of his days asleep.

But one morning, as his loving owner steeled herself to have him euthanised, Piglet seemed to be rejuvenated. He ran around the garden with the family’s other dogs, wagging his tail, then settled on the sofa to be brushed, his favourite activity.

As his owner placed the brush back in its box, Piglet suffered a seizure and died in her arms. His brief recovery was a little-understood occurrence seen in both humans and animals, sometimes called ‘the last rally’ and known in Spanish as ‘mejoría de la muerte’ (literally, ‘the improvement of death’).

The grief of losing a beloved pet can be as intense as the loss of any dear friend—and the experience of witnessing an animal’s death can be deeply painful.

Jack Russell terrier on a walk

For nearly 25 years, as part of my studies into unexplained phenomena in animal psychology, I have collected case studies about pet deaths, stories shared with me by their owners and human friends.

Often, people will say how grateful they are that someone is taking an interest, and taking them seriously. As a biologist, I believe there’s an enormous amount to be learned about the nature of death from observing animals.

My German colleague Michael Nahm, the world’s leading authority on ‘terminal lucidity’ in humans, has helped me to recognise the importance of similar end-of-life experiences in pets. Terminal lucidity is well documented in care homes and hospices, but rarely studied: it’s a burst of mental and physical energy, often accompanied by unusual clarity, soon before death. And it appears equally common in animals.

One vet told me, ‘In my practice, experiencing the last rally in dogs isn’t unusual. Called to put a dog down, I ring the bell of a house and a barking canine greets me, jumping around. When I ask its owners where the sick dog is, they inform me this is the moribund dog in question.’

My tentative theory is that the last rally has an evolutionary benefit. In the wild, an animal that instinctively knows it is dying can detach itself from the pack and take itself away, to go somewhere its corpse won’t spread disease.

Sudden mental lucidity, when full consciousness and memory return to a dying animal, is fascinating because of the light it could shed on human dementia.

Nahm’s research suggests many people with Alzheimer’s disease, long after they have apparently lost the ability to remember family members, can experience a burst of clear memory just before death. This suggests the memories themselves were never lost—only the ability to retrieve them.

But end-of-life phenomena take many forms. Correspondents have told me about what appear to be psychic premonitions of a disaster; extraordinary journeys pets have undertaken to see old masters one last time; and touching goodbyes made by an animal to its human family.

One of the first recorded instances of a pet bidding goodbye to its people was noted by writers Vincent and Margaret Gaddis in 1970.

Tomcat Pussy was taught by the couple who kept him to hold out a paw to shake hands. Pussy had to be put down, but when the vet arrived, the cat dragged himself out of his basket, walked straight to his sorrowful keepers, and held out his paw to each of them in turn. He then crept back into his basket, buried his head in his paws, and awaited his fate.

The following accounts are just a few from my database. If you have a story to share, I’d be pleased to hear from you, at sheldrake@sheldrake.org

Farewell visits

BRUCE

I had a mongrel dog called Bruce. After my mother died, my father decided to move to a house three miles away. What to do with Bruce was a problem, which was resolved when my friend said she would love to have him. Five years later, on a lovely summer’s evening, I heard scratching outside the bedroom window.

Looking down, I saw the white-haired face of Bruce. You can imagine the excitement in the household. We made such a fuss over him. At last, he turned to leave, and I can still see him walking away over the field, stopping and looking back.

A few weeks later, my friend told me Bruce had gone missing one night, returning early the next day—and passed away three days later. It is especially remarkable that Bruce had never been to our new address.

ORIO

We lived next door to a family who had a female black lab called Orio. She was such a gentle dog, and when her people were away, my husband would go over, feed her, and take her for walks.

One afternoon about two years ago, she came and stood at our front door by herself, then walked all over the house and finally came to me in the kitchen and laid down by my feet. It was very unusual, and her owner could not explain how Orio had managed to escape from their yard.

Later the same day, she turned up at the neighbour across the street. He, too, from time to time, looked after her. The next day, Orio became very sick and that night she died. I am convinced the dog knew that she was about to die and came to say goodbye to the people who were kind to her.

Premonitions of death

THE HOUFFALIZE SHEEP

During World War II in Houffalize, Belgium, in 1944, an old man who owned sheep died. He had no family so my grandfather decided to lead the sheep into a kind of greenhouse in his garden.

One evening, they all began to bleat very loudly, all night long. The eight children who lived in the house (and my mother) found it difficult, if not impossible, to sleep.

Early in the morning, a bomb hit the greenhouse and killed all the sheep. My mother told me this story. It was impossible for her to forget it. [Note: The little town of Houffalize suffered an intense bombardment in December 1944.]

THE LAB RATS

In the summer of 1997, my daughter was working on a grant at a university in California. Part of her duties was to retrieve the cage with the lab rats. They were part of a cancer research programme and, as such, had been injected with live cancer tumours and then different medicines.

Every so often, the rats would be ‘sacrificed’ so the cancer and the organs could be studied. My daughter, not really sympathetic to lab rats, became concerned when she noticed a regular phenomenon.

On the day the rats were to be sacrificed, unlike days when they were being weighed and measured, the rats would all gather in a corner, heads facing the centre of a circle, squeaking and showing signs of alarm. As my daughter said to me, ‘Mom, they know. Somehow, they know.’

The last farewell

PETIE

A few years ago, our Staffordshire bulldog Petie fell terminally ill. One hour before he died, he came to each member of the family and spent a little time with everybody, one at a time. We thought this behaviour odd as he didn’t usually do this, at least not to each individual person at one time.

He seemed alive and much more energetic than he had been being so ill. After spending a bit of time with each of us, he made his way downstairs to his bed and died peacefully.

FOXI

We all loved Foxi. He was so friendly, devoted, and loyal, as well as very watchful and clever. When the dog became old, he could not hear well any more, ate less, and became weaker until, at the age of 14, he could barely move.

But one day, the whole family were at the dinner table when Foxi struggled to his feet, went around from one person to the next, sadly looked at everybody, and gave his paw to each member of the family. Then he trudged back, slowly lay down—and died. You can believe me, we had tears in our eyes.

fluffy grey cat face surrounded by flowers credit Sebastian Penraeth

BAKER

Baker, the cat our son and daughter-in-law adopted, was sociable on his own terms. Knowing we were family, he was affectionate with us, but briefly. The last time we saw him, as he was clearly dying, he came in as usual. But this time, he made the rounds, sitting in each of our four laps for 15 minutes or so and then moving to the next lap as if saying goodbye. When he died very soon afterward, each of us said they had sensed he was aware of his imminent death and was saying goodbye.

EMILIA

We adopted my first cat Emilia when she was three months old. She had Feline leukaemia that took her life three years later, despite all our efforts to help her. The day she was dying, around 5am, I sat her on my legs and told her we could watch the sunrise. She stood up, raised her head and licked my hand. An hour later, as the sun came up and touched our window, she looked at me, leaned back on my legs, and exhaled deeply. That was her last breath.

I am a nurse of critical patients in Chile, and it is common for us to observe the famous ‘mejoría de la muerte’ in terminally ill people, but I had never before observed it in animals.

The last rally

OLLIE and BARNEY

We lost our dog Ollie after nine years. The few hours before she passed, she sat watching the sunrise... transfixed, then walked round slowly, looking at all parts of the house, garden, etc. This may not seem unusual. But to us, it was very distinctive and different behaviour. The day before, she had an amazing longer walk, something she had not been able to do for quite some time.

That reminded us of our other dog, Barney, who passed away at the age of 18. He also had an astonishingly long walk on the day he died. He was virtually blind and previously unable to walk a few yards without stopping.

BALOU

On November 2021, my beloved Balou was a happy, lively cat until his health deteriorated rapidly, aged ten, and his hind legs became unstable. When an inoperable tumour was found, we scheduled euthanasia for the next day. That evening, he sought my company and we fell asleep together, holding hands side by side (he stretched out his paw to my hand—he had never done that before).

The next morning, Balou was vital again. He cleaned himself a lot, and even climbed stairs. We went to the garden together and watched birds there like so often before. The contrast with his behaviour during the weeks before was so obvious that it must be a case of ‘the last rally’. He knew he was going to die.

Near-death visions

SNOWY

Our dog Snowy slipped into a coma for several hours and then suddenly sat upright. She stared very intensely as if she was looking at an object, and followed that object with her eyes, her head moved slightly from side to side.

If a dog could smile, she would smile. You could see a certain happiness radiating from her. She started wagging her tail for a few seconds, then collapsed and fell back into a coma.

I interpreted this as a possible near-death vision. All four members of my family witnessed it and voiced our amazement out loud at the same time.

PRINCE MOONSHADOW

Our family dog, Prince Moonshadow, seemed to achieve something akin to a state of joyful enlightenment before he died, following a series of mini-strokes. He smiled every moment he was awake for the last weeks of his life.

I felt when looking at him, smiling in the garden, that he was seeing heaven. And when I said the same thing I’d said to him every day for 14 years, ‘I’ll love you for ever,’ he met my gaze with a look that showed he knew I meant it.

The Full Paper and Case Reports

Experiences of Dying Animals: Parallels With End-of-Life Experiences in Humans

Journal of Scientific Exploration (2023 Spring) Vol. 37, No. 1
https://doi.org/10.31275/20222773
by Rupert Sheldrake, Pam Smart, and Michael Nahm

Abstract

There has recently been an increased interest in end-of-life experiences (ELEs) in humans, but ELEs in non-human animals have not yet been assessed. In this paper, we present findings from a study we performed to collect and analyze reports about remarkable behavioral aspects of animals during their last phase of life. After public appeals in which we asked for reports about ELEs in animals, we received numerous responses from pet owners. We were able to group these experiences into specific categories, which we termed the last goodbyes, last visits, last rally, retreating into solitude, unusual premonitions of death, somatic surprises, terminal lucidity in animals, and potential near-death visions in animals. We present 43 case reports pertaining to these different categories. Many of them show striking similarities to remarkable behavior reported by dying people. This similarity between animal and human ELEs might be a sign of a common physiology underpinning such experiences and could also increase the recognition that animals share an inner life similar to that of humans during all phases of life. This could lead to a more respectful treatment of pets, as well as of animals in farms, zoos, and in the wild. However, as our study was of a preliminary character and only the first of its kind, we encourage further systematic research in this field. In the Supplementary Material, we publish 71 additional cases for those who would like to study more examples.

Case Collection of Experiences with Dying Animals

Supplementary material to the paper
Journal of Scientific Exploration (2023 Spring) Vol. 37, No. 1
by Rupert Sheldrake, Pam Smart, and Michael Nahm