Pets know more about us than we think -- including, sometimes, our medical conditions
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Andrews McMeel Syndication
My dog Gemma, a tiny Chihuahua-Pomeranian mix, used to insistently lick my feet. Maybe she just liked the smell of the shoes I’d been wearing, but I always wondered if she was sensing some kind of health issue, and my feet were all she could reach. Fortunately, I haven’t been diagnosed with anything serious, but Gemma’s actions were similar to those of dogs -- both trained and naturals -- who sniff out disease in humans, alert them to oncoming seizures or low blood sugar levels, or perform other “pet scans” that keep their people safe.
If Milo insistently sniffs a mole on your arm or Puff Princess pesters you when you’re not feeling well, they may be trying to tell you something important about your health.
Scientific studies have confirmed the canine ability to sniff out lung, breast, bladder and ovarian cancer -- in some cases before it’s obvious through testing. For example, the breath exhaled by patients with lung cancer, inflammatory lung or liver disease, and hepatic or renal dysfunction is different than the breath exhaled by healthy people. The sweat and urine of people with health problems can also have a distinctive odor that dogs can be trained to identify -- and some pets sniff it out on their own.
Animals can recognize other health problems as well. Diabetes-alert dogs sniff out blood sugar lows and let their people know by waking them up, nudging them or getting the attention of another person. Without their dogs’ alerts, they could slip into a coma and die.
Dogs have been trained to alert people to oncoming epileptic seizures and assist them to a safe place until the seizure is over. A study published in 2019 in the journal Scientific Reports found that seizures have particular olfactory characteristics. Seizure-alert dogs recognize the scent of an oncoming seizure.
What about cats? We don’t hear as commonly about them alerting humans to health issues as we do dogs, but it happens. Cats have fewer scent receptors than dogs, but their ability to distinguish between similar scents is actually better than that of dogs.
Dogs and cats may not have medical degrees, but they are highly sensitive to changes in odor. That enables them to detect the subtle changes in body odor caused by cancer cells, low blood sugar or other irregularities.
They are also skilled observers, and we are their primary subjects. They watch -- and smell -- us all the time. Both pets and trained service animals may pick up clues that humans are too busy to notice or don’t have the sensory capacity to detect. Minute changes in the way we smell or act that go unnoticed by ourselves or family members may well be noticed by our dogs or cats. Their 24/7 observation of us can make them skilled diagnosticians, even if we still need a visit to our own doctor to figure out what they’re trying to tell us.
Even more fascinating is their ability to recognize and communicate that there’s a problem. It’s easy to understand how dogs are trained to recognize the scent of a specific illness, but how do untrained pet dogs know that certain odors are of concern? Again, it’s likely that sense of smell. Even if we don’t necessarily feel sick, pets may pick up on underlying chemosignals -- odors related to emotional conditions such as happiness or fear -- and react accordingly. In a study on interspecies transmission of emotional information via chemosignals from humans to dogs, published in 2018 in the journal Animal Cognition, dogs displayed more stressful behaviors when humans were giving off “fear” chemosignals. That, combined with their intense connection with us, may be their motivation to warn us that something might be wrong.
The next time your dog or cat is pawing or licking you insistently in a specific spot, don’t ignore them. They might know something you don’t.
When should I
take cat to vet?
Q: What are the signs that my cat needs to see the vet?
A: I hope that you’re taking your kitty to the veterinarian once a year for a checkup. Even if she isn’t sick, knowing how she looks and acts normally is a great baseline for your veterinarian to have. During a physical, the vet can listen to your cat’s heart and lungs; check her temperature, pulse and respiratory rate; weigh her to make sure she’s not unnecessarily gaining or losing weight; look at her eyes, ears and skin to check for infection or parasites; check the teeth for tartar buildup or inflamed gums; and feel her body to make sure organs seem normal and there are no suspicious lumps or bumps.
Signs that your cat might not be feeling tip-top include the following:
-- Frequent vomiting or diarrhea, especially if it lasts more than 48 hours.
-- Lack of appetite for more than a day.
-- Not wanting to be petted.
-- Stiffness when standing up or lying down.
-- No longer jumping on furniture.
-- Being reluctant to go up or down stairs.
-- Picking up food and then dropping it.
-- Changes in normal behavior, such as hiding instead of greeting you when you come home.
-- Gums that are pale or bluish-gray instead of a pretty pink.
-- Persistent runny nose or sneezing.
-- Drooling or bad breath.
-- Lethargy, especially in a kitten.
-- Trauma, such as being hit by a car or a bite from another animal.
Cats don’t complain a lot when they’re not feeling well. In fact, they may even try to hide signs of illness, so you really have to know what their “normal” is to notice when something is wrong. Any time you see a change in behavior, it’s a powerful clue that your cat needs to see the vet. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
-- Last month, a 3-year-old American black-and-tan coonhound named Lou set the canine record for longest ears on a living dog. Lou’s ears measure 13.38 inches, but Tigger, a bloodhound, holds the Guinness world record for longest ears ever, a title he earned in 2004. The late bloodhound’s ears measured 13.75 inches and 13.5 inches. It’s theorized that the long ears of scenthounds such as Lou and Tigger help to sweep scent up toward the dogs’ noses as they follow a trail.
-- Celebrate pets throughout the month in October -- as if you didn’t celebrate them every day! It’s Adopt-A-Dog Month, Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, National Animal Safety and Protection Month, National Pet Wellness Month and National Pit Bull Awareness Month. National Walk Your Dog Week begins Oct. 1. Oct. 4 is World Animal Day; Oct. 13 is National Pet Obesity Awareness Day; Oct. 16 is Global Cat Day, National Feral Cat Day and National Fetch Day for all the ball- and stick-loving dogs out there; Oct. 21 is National Pets for Veterans Day; and Oct. 29 is National Cat Day. However you celebrate, remember that an extra treat wouldn’t go amiss!
-- Love cats? The term for you is ailurophile, from the Greek word “ailouros,” meaning “cat,” and the Greek suffix “phile,” meaning “lover.” The word was first documented in the early 20th century, although of course cat lovers have been around for millennia. Your neighbor who hates cats? He’s an ailurophobe, one who is fearful of or averse to cats. Another fancy cat-related term is chatoyancy, the gemological name for the optical effect seen in certain cabochon-cut gemstones that shine like a cat’s eye, reflecting light back in a narrow line like the constricted pupil of a cat’s eye in bright light. Chrysoberyl, tourmaline and beryl are among those that display the phenomenon. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet care experts headed by “The Dr. Oz Show” veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, founder of the Fear Free organization and author of many best-selling pet care books, and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. Joining them is behavior consultant and lead animal trainer for Fear Free Pets Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.