When you bond with a cat, you create a friendship that you can’t find anywhere else. Some people even prefer cats to humans. Many cat owners with such a strong bond say their feline friends are incredibly sensitive to their feelings and well-being.
Cats seem to know exactly when they are needed most. Their amazing ability to provide companionship when humans are feeling their worst has many of us wondering if cats know when humans are sick.
Of course, until someone invents a way to read cats’ minds, we will never have a definitive answer. However, based on anecdotal evidence and our knowledge of feline ecology and behavior, we can make some guesses.
Cats can smell slightly different things to each person.
Cats can sniff out that you are sick.
Like many animals, cats use their noses to sense. A cat’s sense of smell is the most sensitive of the five senses, and the cat’s olfactory system is 14 times more sensitive than that of humans. In other words, we humans cannot even begin to imagine all of the sensory information that cats receive through their sense of smell.
This extraordinary sensory capacity allows cats to recognize people, objects, and animals solely through their sense of smell. Thus, they use their noses to search for prey, navigate unfamiliar places, find water, and even decide where to go to the bathroom.
Because cats can sniff out subtle differences, each individual cat smells slightly differently. As you bond with your cat, they will recognize your scent before they recognize your face. The cats know exactly what you usually smell like and when something is wrong.
A common example is when you come home from playing with a friend’s pet. Your cat smells other animals on your clothes and skin, as if to say, “What, I don’t deserve you?” He may look at you with a disappointed expression, as if to say, “I’m not good enough for you.
In addition to scolding you for being with other cats, cats can use their noses to sniff out changes in human hormones. Hormones are natural chemicals that affect many physiological processes in the body. Hormones can also alter human body odor. The human nose cannot detect these changes, but there is evidence that the cat’s nose can.
In addition to sniffing out real diseases, cats can smell cough drops and lotions to tell if a person is sick.
Hormones are usually associated with puberty and pregnancy, but hormone levels also fluctuate when people are sick. Even the most basic cold can disrupt a person’s natural hormonal balance and subtly alter natural smells. When you have a cold, your cat may act strangely, perhaps because it is curious and puzzled by your unusual odor.
Cats are also rumored to be able to sniff out certain diseases such as cancer, high blood pressure, and diabetes. A cat named Oscar in Rhode Island can reportedly tell when a patient in an intensive care facility is dying. He selects patients seemingly at random and lets them snuggle up to him. At least 50 patients breathed their last a few hours later.
There are no studies to support the theory that cats can detect disease. However, some studies have shown that dogs can sniff out certain types of cancer and smells associated with diseases such as COVID-19. Dogs usually have slightly better noses than cats, but not by much. It is not too much to assume that cats have the same ability.
In addition to being able to sniff out real illnesses, cats can smell things like cough drops and lotions to tell if a person is sick. For example, if you always use Vicks Vaporub when you have a cold, it won’t take long for a cat to smell it and associate you with being sick.
If the cat has spent a lot of time with you, it will know what your heart usually sounds like.
Cats recognize physical symptoms.
It is not only the smell that changes when you are sick. Many illnesses are accompanied by physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, high fever, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, and weight gain or loss. If your cat has been with you for a long time, they know what your heartbeat usually sounds like. They also know what your skin usually feels like and what your breathing sounds like. Cats are keen observers and will notice these changes.
Your cat may not associate these physical changes with illness at first, but may become more interested the more time he spends with you. In doing so, your cat will give the impression that he is doing his best to make you feel better.
How humans behave when they are sick may be the most obvious clue that a cat knows about a human’s physical condition and health.
Cats notice behavioral clues
How people behave when they are sick may be the easiest way for cats to know how humans feel and how well they are doing. When they are sick, their routines and moods change. Not waking up with an alarm, not going to work, lying in bed, forgetting to feed the cat – all of these behaviors send messages to the cat.
Cats like routine, and they become more alert when their environment (including your behavior) changes.
It is unclear whether cats will associate these unusual behaviors with your actual physical condition. However, it is likely that they recognize patterns and act accordingly.
If you are frequently ill, the cat may notice a pile of tissues next to the couch and begin to anticipate changes in your routine. If your routine changes, the cat may try to change its routine as well.
If you lie in bed all day, the cat may begin to snuggle up with you instead of his usual routine. With a change in the cat’s behavior, you would assume that the cat is doing so to make you feel better. Maybe not, but so what?
Cats may or may not know you’re sick. They can sniff out hormonal changes and recognize physical symptoms. It is also clear that they can recognize behaviors associated with illness. However, we do not know if they have the cognitive ability to combine these sensory information and relate it to how you feel when you are sick.
As a result, a cat’s change in behavior may simply be curiosity or confusion rather than a deliberate attempt to bring you back to health. But that is not the point. If your cat makes you feel better when you are sick, that’s all that matters.