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My Pet World: How pets might 'think' and experience their world

Cathy M. Rosenthal, Tribune Content Agency on

Dear Cathy,

I suppose we can never know what our pets are thinking or are aware of since they process information differently. I do know that my dogs have always let me know what they wanted. Just like they “ask” for food, pets and a walk, they have always let me know when they have had enough pain and discomfort and want me to do something about it.

I don’t know that they are aware that they are dying, only that they want “out.” My German shepherd died peacefully on her own after I gave her permission to leave; all others I had gently euthanized after they let me know it was time. My cats let me know by hiding in unusual places. My grandmother always told me that dogs come home to die, and cats go away. That seems true to me.

— Holly, Tucson, Arizona

Dear Holly,

Animals have their ways of communicating with us that shows us they experience a rich emotional life. But in terms of how they think, I want to pivot for a moment, and introduce you to Dr. Temple Grandin, a world-renowned spokesperson for autism and humane livestock handling.


As a person with autism, she claims to be a visual learner, very often “thinking” in pictures. In her writing, she says animals may think visually as well. As sensory creatures, they use sight, sound, and smell to process information. One example is when a dog is afraid of men in hats. It’s reasonable to assume the dog has had a frightful experience with a man in a hat and, through visual remembrance, shows the same fear and anxiety whenever he sees any man in a hat. As for scent, dogs possess about 300 million olfactory receptors compared to our six million, which means they will process information and experience things in ways we can’t even begin to understand.

While pets have different ways of experiencing the world, what impresses me most is their ability to communicate with people. They don’t speak our language, but they know how to “speak” to us to get the things they want and need. But sometimes their communications are subtle, and it takes an intuitive and deeply bonded pet parent, like yourself Holly, to understand what a dog or cat is trying to communicate, especially when they are at the end of their life.

If this topic intrigues you as much as it does me, check out some of Dr. Grandin’s books on the subject, "Animals in Translation" and "Animals make us Human." I think you will appreciate her thoughts on the subject and learn even more about animals in the process.

Dear Cathy,


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