Dogs are well-known for their ability to detect explosives, illegal drugs, and find missing persons. They've become invaluable to law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations for over a century.
Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld, the American Cancer Society's deputy chief medical officer laughed (initially) at the notion that dogs might be able to sniff-out cancer. But that soon changed when more studies confirmed their uncanny ability. He now says that "the canine concept [of cancer detection] has shown promise for several years."
But what about cats?
I could not find any studies about cats and their ability to detect human illness. However, I did carefully document testimonials (including my own) and looked at the five most recent cats inducted into Canada's Purina Hall of Fame for saving human lives. I also searched for credible testimonies outside of Canada.
In total, nine different cats seem to have a gift for sensing illness, danger, or death.
Kady Detects Migraines
Rose Webster / All rights reservedI've been a migraine sufferer for about 20 years now. When I'm at my worst (and need to lie in a cold, dark room) my cats tend to cuddle up near me.
Yet, my latest rescue cat, Kady seems to take matters into her own paws. When I start to feel the symptoms of a migraine, she actually tries to massage my head. Often I get the one-sided headaches and she's always massaged the painful area.
The other thing is, she won't bother me for food or anything when I'm at my worst. With a migraine, even bending over to put cat food on the floor hurts. I found it astonishing that she's able to sense my pain with such accuracy.
Five Cats Who Have Saved Lives
Here are the heroics of the last five cats inducted into Purina's Hall of Fame:
Ibagli (Wikipedia) / Public DomainIn 2010, Gepetto from Wetaskiwin, Alberta awoke Phyllis (who was wearing ear plugs) at 6:30 am to save her from deadly carbon monoxide filling her home. Normally a quiet cat, Gepetto let out a "terrible sequence of yowls" from the basement, recalled Phyllis.
Sarah (Sarah G... on flickr) / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericIn 2012, Monty from Camrose, Alberta, prevented his owner Patricia from slipping into a diabetic coma or seizure. Monty is a lovable ginger tabby that never bites.
Patricia uses her left hand to test her blood sugar and was surprised to awake in the middle of the night to Monty biting the fingers on her left hand.
At first, Patricia tried to shoo Monty away but when he persisted, she sat up. When she tried to put Monty at the foot of the bed, she felt extremely dizzy.
Incredibly, this cat accompanied Patricia to the kitchen (she was feeling weak, nauseated, and unable to walk without clinging to walls for support). Then Monty ran ahead and sat beside Patricia's blood sugar testing kit.
Patricia discovered her blood sugar was dangerously low at 2.7 and promptly took sugar tablets. Monty kept the exhausted woman awake for her second reading. When it tested normal, Monty allowed her to go back to bed - but never left her side.
The National Guard on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 GenericMost recently, on August 13th, 2013, a Calico-Angora mixed cat named Meskie from Little Shemogue, New Brunswick saved her owner, Chyrl (who has limited mobility) from perishing in a fire that engulfed her home.
At 2:oo am, Meskie jumped on Chyrl's stomach and led her to the kitchen. As she got closer, Chyrl realized the front of her home was on fire. Since Chyrl had a bad hip, knee, and a heart condition, it took considerable effort (and extra time) for her to escape.
Wearing only her nightgown, she managed to take Meskie, her purse, and called 911. She got into her car (with Meskie), and drove away in time.
Most of Chyrl's house was gutted by the fire. Not only that, her home was adjacent to dry pine trees that the fire department speculated would've carried the blaze into the community (endangering countless lives).
I was unable to find YouTube videos of the other cat heroes, but I found one detailing Meskie's heroic deed:
Meskie: 2014 Purina Animal Hall of Fame Inductee
Published May 5th, 2014
The US and UK Report Cat Heroes
Claire Nelson's cat Rusty sensed her imminent heart attack
Oscar the Cat
In 2007, David M. Dosa, M.D., M.P.H. published "A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat" in the New England Journal of Medicine
Pippa Saves Little Girl 20 Times
Cat alerts mum when Mia's blood sugar is dangerously low
Speculation and Summary
I read countless posts online about cats sensing pregnancy in women or detecting cancer as well. Plenty of cat owners have said their cat behaves differently when they are ill. I'm relieved that I'm not the only one wondering if cats can detect illness.
Dr. Nicholas Dodman, who practices at the prestigious Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, wrote The Cat Who Cried for Help: Attitudes, Emotions, and the Psychology of Cats reminds us that "cats are able to read body language the way we read a book." He also says that cats can smell things that we simply cannot.
A few theories and more questions:
1) A chemical change in the body might be detected by a cat who can, for example, smell when someone's blood sugar is low. Or a cat might be able to detect a different scent in someone who is dying.
2) I wonder if cats can detect inflammation, brain waves, or different energy levels. When I had a leg injury, one of my cats would lie next to my sore leg. With my migraines, I wonder if Kady senses a change in brain waves (or just my reaction to the pain). In the case of the registered nurse Claire Nelson who was about to suffer a heart attack, did her cat notice a different energy level?
3) Are cats seeking a warmer place to lie down? A massage therapist I used to see had a cat that would curl up on my low back where I had pain (and probably inflammation). Cats do like to be warmer than us, so it'd make sense they would seek out the warmest body part to rest on.
Having a keen sense of smell and observational skills appears to be where cats have an advantage over us. Saving an owner from a fire is amazing (considering Meskie led Chyrl directly to the burning kitchen). It's been well-documented that mother cats will enter a burning building to save their kittens too.
Final thought: I highly doubt one can train a cat to detect illness in humans - since I think it's entirely up to the cat if s/he feels you are worth saving.