Cat parents often tell stories of how their cats seemed to know they were sick or pregnant before they themselves did. They became extra clingy, started meowing at them, did their best to signal to the human that something is different.
Do cats really know you are sick though? Do they go by our changes in behavior, or can they smell or sense something we can’t explain?
Do Cats Know When You Are Sick?
Cat owners will without a doubt tell you cats know when their humans are sick. Since they have a very attuned sense of smell, they are probably able to detect the chemical changes in our bodies that happen when we are ill. Or they could just have a sixth sense.
Cats are also great at reading non-verbal signals, so if you are suddenly spending more time in bed and are generally feeling miserable, they will show up to keep you company. And will naturally appreciate the extra cuddle time.
The internet is full of stories of cats who have been able to detect illness, even death. Oscar, a cat who lived in a Rhode Island nursing home, is perhaps the most famous of them all. As the resident therapy cat, he is claimed to have been able to accurately predict the death of at least 50 patients. He would, apparently randomly, snuggle with residents, all of whom would die within a couple of hours.
Mel-O, a Canadian cat, successfully detected his owner’s high blood sugar before he went into a diabetic seizure. Gepetto, another Canadian feline, saved his owner’s life by alerting her to a carbon monoxide leak in the home. Monty kept biting his owner’s finger until she tested her blood sugar and would only leave her side when it returned to normal.
As these cases (and a lot of our personal experiences) testify: cats do know when you are sick, and can even save your life when something is seriously wrong. It’s good to have them on hand.
How Can Cats Sense Illness in Humans?
If we let go of the sixth cat sense theory, we will discover that their other five are great at detecting changes in smell and temperature, as well as any sudden changes in our habits. This helps them discover when we are not feeling well, often even before we realize it ourselves.
Let’s explore the wondrous feline senses that make them such good clinicians.
Changes in Our Smell
A cat’s sense of smell is 14 times more powerful than ours. This means they can detect things we have never smelt (and probably never will), and from much greater distances. They will in fact identify people based on scent, and not their appearance. If you suddenly start smelling different, for example, if you are wearing a new perfume, your cat may need a minute to understand it’s you.
While they are no sharks, this ability lets them pinpoint even the slightest changes in our body odor which we can never smell ourselves.
When we get sick, our bodies smell differently. Our hormone levels fluctuate as our body puts our defense and recovery mechanisms in motion. This is what our cats notice.
Certain illnesses and conditions cause a significant hormonal shift. Diabetes impacts the production of insulin and impacts glucose levels, Addison’s disease is caused by an underactive adrenal gland, hyperthyroidism is caused by an overactive thyroid, while Cushing’s syndrome comes with high cortisol levels. Cats can smell all of that. They can also smell pregnancy, due to the sudden rise in estrogen and progesterone levels.
We don’t actually know that cats understand these smell changes mean we are sick. What we do know is that they are attracted to these fresh smells, being the curious creatures they are. They may just want to explore the smell. We interpret their behavior as more clingy, and have made the connection between human illness and cat clinginess.
Cats will also form scent memories. For example, if you use a topical pain relief cream when your bad knee starts acting up, and you spend the next day on the couch resting, your cat will start associating the smell of the cream with you not feeling well, i.e. having more leisure time. They may soon come running to keep you company when they smell it.
Changes in Our Body Temperature
Cats love to be warm. You will often catch them lying in a sun puddle, sleeping under the covers, or hugging the radiator the minute it gets slightly chillier. Cats have a slightly higher core body temperature than we do, so they feel the cold more. They will figure out a way to warm up the minute they start feeling the least bit cool.
When you have a fever, your body gets warm. Your chest is usually the warmest part, which is where your cat will take up its position more likely than not. It may also park itself between your legs, but chances are you’ll get extra cat time the minute you start behaving like a radiator.
Changes in Our Behavior
Cats are also great at noticing changes in our behavior. When we are not feeling well, we will naturally change our usual routine. We may stay home from work, spend more time resting, change our eating habits, and subsequently change our cat’s routines too.
Since cats are supreme creatures of habit, and prefer nothing more than for everything in their lives to be running like the best railroad systems in the world, they will notice the minute you change things up. If you don’t feed them “on time”, are not out of bed when you should be or go to bed earlier: they will come to investigate.
Since cats are so curious, they will sniff things out, quite literally. They will give you a thorough olfactory examination, and as we’ve already established that you will smell differently, your cat will know that something is amiss.
If you have a chronic illness or if you often suffer from colds, your cat will learn all about this other routine you have. When the tissues come out and you start brewing mug after mug of tea, they will understand that feeding times may be affected, and that you may not be as interested in playing with them. They will adapt, but they also might give you a fair amount of fuss.
What Illnesses Can Cats Sense in Humans?
In the most general terms, cats are more likely to sense serious, life-threatening illnesses than the common cold, because they produce the greatest hormonal shifts and affect the way a human smells most obviously.
Cats will of course notice you are suffering from the common cold. Your cat may meow at you when you sneeze, as you keep getting on its nerves, but that’s more of a situational response. When you are in very real danger, they will meow like crazy, bite and paw at you to get your attention and alert you that you are not well.
Here are some of the illnesses cats can detect:
Cats can most certainly detect diabetes, especially if your blood sugar levels are getting worse. Diabetes causes significant hormonal imbalances, and feline noses can easily smell the insulin and glucose changes in your bloodstream.
When you have a very high glucose level, your sweat smells sickly sweet. Even you will be able to smell it. In fact, diabetic ketoacidosis can be diagnosed based on your breath alone, which will smell like pear drops. Your cat will smell it long before you slip into a coma.
Neither of these smells are particularly nice for cats. They dislike them, and will paw at you or make biscuits on you and meow in an agitated fashion. If your cat has noticed you checking your insulin levels via your finger, it can also bite said finger, as it has learned that the smell means you need to stick yourself with a needle.
We believe cats can sense heart attacks, most likely due to the change of body temperature and the change in your hormonal levels. Cats who often sleep on their owner’s chests will also realize something is wrong with the heartbeat. They may not understand what that means, but they will usually give you a heads up.
Cats will also rush to get help if you lose consciousness after a heart attack, and will attract the attention of the nearest reliable human they can find.
We are not sure if cats can actually diagnose cancer. However, since a lot of cancers change our metabolism and we start smelling differently, it is quite possible our cats are able to tell. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of cats detecting cancer before their humans knew anything was wrong.
Oggy was most likely able to tell his owner had breast cancer long before she found the lump, as he was aggressively snuggling near the affected area long before a diagnosis was made.
Cats can also learn to pick up on seizures before they happen. If you have epilepsy, your cat will learn to warn you you are about to have one, as it will be able to notice the changes in your energy and behavior on time.
Lilly does this for her owner Nathan, and has saved his life on more than one occasion.
Different mental health conditions often cause hormonal imbalances that cats are able to detect. People who suffer from them also tend to behave differently, and cats are sticklers for routine, so they are bound to notice a bout of depression.
Cat owners often claim their pets know when they are sad and are extra affectionate. Those who suffer from anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD and even autism can often hugely benefit from spending time with cats, who seem to know exactly how to make them feel better.
Finally, cats can certainly sense death. As we are about to die, a whole host of chemical and hormonal changes occur in our bodies. Cats detect all of them. Just think of Oscar, who helped comfort so many of his nursing home friends.
Can Cats Help with Human Sickness?
Cats can certainly help with human sickness. Therapy cats are used in various hospice and hospital settings, and cat owners regularly benefit from their cat’s purrs and attention when they are not feeling well.
In fact, cat purrs are healing. The same frequency is used in vibrational therapy, but it’s of course much more enjoyable when it comes from a cat.
Cat purrs relax your muscles, lower blood pressure, improve heart health and boost recovery. They improve the production of osteoblasts which produce bone tissue. They lower stress levels and boost mental health.
So, when you are not feeling well and your cat comes over to purr on your chest, consider yourself lucky. You’ll feel better soon.
Can Cats Sense Death in Humans?
Yes, cats can sense death. They can smell the chemical and hormonal changes that occur just before a human dies.
Some people find this incredibly creepy. Others find it incredibly comforting. Cats who live in retirement homes or any environment that sees a lot of death are extremely attuned to this smell, and will seek out a dying human to help them through.
Don’t be alarmed though if you are not feeling well and your cat rushes to your side. As you now know, they will want to snuggle even if it’s just the common cold. After all, wouldn’t you make good use of the extra cuddling opportunities?
Do Cats Know When You Are Dying?
Yes, cats know when a human is dying. They can smell the changes that are happening in their body, and will be there to offer comfort.
We can’t be completely sure if cats actually know that the smell they have detected equals impending death. In all probability, they do. After all, there is so much we don’t understand about the way instinct and knowledge is passed on in the animal world. More likely than not, cats have a deeper understanding of the universe than we do, as they have ten thousand years of experience embedded in their DNA.
Do Cats Sense Depression and Anxiety?
Cats will recognize anxiety and depression, mostly from the changes in your behavior, especially if they’ve seen you in a good state of mental health.
Dogs are usually credited with being man’s best friend and being able to gauge exactly how their human is feeling. While cats are more independent, they will also be able to tell when you are struggling with your mental health.
As your usual routine changes and you start to get more lethargic and withdrawn, or more nervous and uneasy, they will notice. Most cats will respond with extra affection and come spend time with you, trying to help you heal.
If you suffer from a mental health issue, a cat can help you overcome it. However, make sure that the cat’s health and wellbeing is never compromised. If your mental health is preventing you from taking good care of your pet, make sure you get help, both for yourself and for them. Ask someone to come and feed your cat and clean their litter box, if you are unable to handle the tasks yourself.
Can Cats Sense Broken Bones?
Cats can sense broken bones by your behavior. If you are showing signs of pain or are confined to your bed, they will know what’s up.
Cats understand movement, so if your arm or leg are injured or immobilized, if you are walking around on crutches or with a sling, they will know that you are unable to use that extremity.
Even if you’ve not broken a bone, but wince every time your cat jumps on your injured leg, they will quickly cotton on and know not to touch you there, until you get better.
Can Cats Sense High Blood Pressure?
Cats will notice you have a high blood pressure by the changes in your behavior, as you become more erratic, and by the changes in your heartbeat.
When you are suffering from hypertension, you will be more irritable and appear confused. Your cat will notice and await your next moves.
Your heart rate will also be affected. If your cat often sleeps on your chest and knows what the usual rhythm is, they will notice a change and usually paw at you or meow while lying on you. They may also start to purr and make biscuits on you, in an attempt to calm you down.
Also note that skittish cats may run from your chest for no apparent reason. They may have associated your rapid heart beat with fear and have gone to hide from whatever is about to attack you.
If you suffer from high blood pressure and notice your cat is suddenly interested in your heart, check to see it’s under control.
Can My Cat Tell If I Have Cancer?
It’s possible your cat can tell you have cancer before you notice anything is wrong. If they are suddenly behaving very differently, clinging to or attacking a certain part of your body, make sure to see a doctor, just to be safe.
Cats have been known to incessantly sniff a part of the body where cancer was later found. As the disease increases polyamines in the body, it is quite possible your cat can detect the pungent smell a long time before you start showing other recognizable symptoms.
If you notice your cat is pawing at your side, attacking your leg or sniffing your belly, you don’t need to immediately be alarmed. However, you may want to keep an eye on their behavior and your own health cues. If they keep doing it or if you are feeling anything other than absolutely healthy and energized: go see a health professional. Your cat may just have saved your life.
Can Cats Sense Heart Attacks?
Cats can’t actually sense a heart attack, but they will be able to tell something is wrong as soon as you start exhibiting symptoms. A lot of cats will rush to get help.
The shortness of breath, dizziness, contorted facial expressions, increased temperature and changes in your heartbeat will be noticed by your cat. Since you certainly won’t appear alright, they will understand something is wrong, and will either rush to your aid and start purring and kneading on you, or will go fetch someone who can help.
Can Cats Sense Diabetes in Humans?
Yes, cats can detect diabetes and will especially know when your glucose levels are getting alarmingly high. A high blood sugar comes with a sickly sweet smell your cat will not miss.
Diabetes is accompanied by a very distinct smell. Even if you don’t yet know your blood sugar is getting too high, your cat will smell it on you. They may run away and refuse to come cuddle if they really hate the smell, or they may start pawing at you to figure out where the smell is coming from.
If you know you have diabetes, make sure to check your blood sugar levels whenever your cat starts acting weirdly around you. They have likely detected something you need to be aware of.
Can Cats Sense Hypoglycemia?
Cats can often detect hypoglycemia by the changes in your behavior and the changes in your smell. Low blood sugar makes your heart pound and your hands shake, and your cat will notice.
An observant cat will not fail to miss that you’ve started sweating, have low energy and are suddenly feeling a bit woozy. They may not understand what is going on, but are very likely to react. You may see them extra clingy or extra vocal, so maybe you want to eat something if your cat seems alarmed and you are not quite feeling all that well.
Wrapping It Up
If you notice your cat is following you everywhere and are not feeling quite yourself, you should consider seeing a doctor. Cats can be great early illness detectors, and yours may be trying to warn you something is wrong.
Don’t immediately start to panic now that you’ve read that though. Cats are also clingy and like your company even when you are perfectly healthy, so if you are feeling quite well, there is really nothing to worry about.