HAVERHILL — Susan Deren sat at her kitchen table, carefully propped a cordless phone in front of her and a notepad to her side, and opened up her iPhone to look at a photo of a small dog, a pug in a pink harness named Luna.
Then Deren, who calls herself an “animal communicator,” picked up the cordless phone and dialed Luna’s owner so she could begin communicating with the dog. Over the phone. Mind-to-mind. The only thing she knew about the dog was her name and what she saw in the photo.
After exchanging a few pleasantries with Luna’s owner and making clear that she is not a veterinarian, Deren closed her eyes and began to “get inside” the dog’s body and mind, as she describes it.
“Is she about 14?” she asked, writing the number 14 on her notepad.
“She’s 9,” the owner replied. “She’ll be 10 this year.”
“She feels older.”
Deren, who is 65, continued her process of moving through the dog’s body, her eyes closed as if in a trance.
“I don’t feel like she has something seriously wrong with her lungs or anything like that,” Deren said, before the owner interrupted.
“I don’t know if I should tell you this or not, but she had breathing surgery three years ago.”
Deren is one of at least 10 animal communicators working in Massachusetts, in an unregulated field of practitioners who describe themselves as “empaths” or “telepaths” and claim a paranormal ability to know what an animal is thinking and feeling. Deren, who left a career in insurance 27 years ago, does five to six calls a day and says the animals speak to her in full sentences, in English.
Practitioners qualify their work as “entertainment,” similar to human psychics and tarot card readers. But with an animal involved — and they work with all of them, from cats to birds to the raccoon living under the porch — some veterinarians worry the practice can lead owners to make decisions that are not supported by medical science.
Betsy Lordan, an Ipswich veterinarian who specializes in large animals, said owners who work with animal communicators can often request expensive diagnostics looking for a problem that is not there.
“When I’m working with an owner who has spoken with an animal communicator, I’m happy to evaluate whatever they’re concerned with,” Lordan said, “but I’m not going to substitute appropriate care based on what I’m seeing.”
It is a sensitive area in the realm of animal care. Many who reach out to communicators are looking for answers that a veterinarian cannot provide, such as the right time to let go of a sick or elderly animal. Or they are seeking a back story for a rescue animal that would explain behavioral issues, which has the potential to feed an “abuse” narrative, according to Lordan, who said that more often the animal has been neglected and improperly socialized and trained before adoption.
The Globe contacted several professional veterinary organizations and encountered a reluctance to go on the record about the issue. Rob Halpin, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, would say only that “the MSPCA believes in science-based methods for diagnosing and treating our pet family members.”
Deren said that skepticism is part of the gig and she encounters it regularly, particularly from “overly rational types” and “husbands.”
Dawn Allen, an animal communicator in Westfield who said she has worked with more than 7,000 clients over the phone during her 20-year career, said skepticism is necessary and healthy.
”It is 100 percent not a fact-based business,” Allen said, “and there’s certainly a suspension of belief because at some point you just have to believe in telepathy to talk about it. So I tell skeptics that there are so many people out there in this world that can help you in so many ways, so if you don’t believe in animal communication, go to a vet or an animal behaviorist or hire a trainer.”
Allen, who is 44, became interested in the field after reading an article about it while a student at Bates College and then studied under several practitioners. She charges $95 for a 20- to 40-minute session, $105 if it’s urgent. Deren, who says she has been able to speak to animals since she was a small child — “My mother thought I was crazy,” she says — charges clients $75 for a 20-minute call.
Back in her Haverhill kitchen, Deren is finishing up her 30-minute communication with the pug. Deren has discussed medications, recommending some and cautioning against others, and made diet recommendations. She has also, very dramatically, winced in pain — “like I was being stabbed in my lower back” — and advised the owner not to let the dog jump or climb stairs, and instead to carry or lift her. “She likes when you carry her,” Deren told the woman.
“I’m just so desperate,” said the dog’s owner, who had agreed to let the Globe listen to her reading. She then went into detail about how she has spent so much money on vets and acupuncturists to make her dog — who has been having daily seizures — feel more comfortable. “This has been very helpful for me. Things I suspected and things I thought about, but having you tell me that and confirm my thoughts is a nice thing, and makes me feel better.”
After Deren hung up, she began to cry.
“That dog’s not going to be here long,” she said. “It’s really sad. She’s just out of it. There’s very little going back and forth with me because of all those seizures. It’s like talking to someone who has dementia.”
The owner seemed to be dancing around, but never directly asked, the ultimate question: Is it time to say goodbye?
“She didn’t ask,” Deren said, and began to cry some more. “They usually ask. They usually ask.”
After several emotional moments, Deren began to dry her eyes and attempted to compose herself. Then she let out an embarrassed laugh.
“Now I’ve got to get on the phone with a horse that’s been throwing his owner, so that’s going to be a ball.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.