When you bond with a cat, you unlock a friendship that is unlike any other. Some people say they even like their cats better than their human partners. With that kind of strong relationship, many cat people report their feline friends are surprisingly attuned to their feelings and well-being.
Cats seem to know exactly when they’re needed most, and their uncanny ability to offer companionship when their humans are feeling their worst has many of us wondering if cats know when people are sick.
Of course, we won’t have an exact answer until someone invents a way to read a cat’s mind. We can, however, make a few presumptions based on anecdotal evidence and what we know about feline biology and behavior.
Cats Can Smell When You’re Sick
Like many animals, cats lead with their noses. A cat’s sense of smell is the strongest of their five senses, and the feline olfactory system is 14 times more powerful than that of a human. This means that we humans can’t even imagine all of the sensory information cats receive through a single sniff.
This incredible sensory skill allows cats to identify people, objects, and animals by scent alone. It’s how they hunt prey, navigate in unfamiliar territory, find water, and they even use their noses to decide where to go to the bathroom.
Cats can detect subtle differences that make every human smell slightly different. When you have a strong bond with a cat, they will recognize your scent before they recognize your face. They know exactly what you usually smell like, and they know when something is off.
A common example is when you come home after visiting with a friend’s pets. Your cat will smell those other animals on your clothes and skin, and they might even give you a disappointed look as if to say, “What, I’m not good enough for you?”
Besides calling you out for spending time with another cat, your cat can also use their nose to detect human hormonal changes. Hormones are natural chemicals that affect numerous body processes. Hormones can also alter a person’s natural body scent. A human nose can’t pick up on those changes, but evidence suggests that feline noses can.
Hormones are most often associated with puberty and pregnancy, but hormone levels also fluctuate when a person is sick. Even a basic cold can throw off a person’s natural hormonal balance and subtly change their natural scent. When you have the flu, and your cat acts oddly, it could be because they’re intrigued and confused by your unusual scent.
There are also anecdotal reports of cats sniffing out specific illnesses, like cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. A cat named Oscar, from Rhode Island, could reportedly tell when patients at an intensive care facility didn’t have long to live. He’d choose patients, seemingly at random, to snuggle with. At least 50 of those patients passed away a few hours later.
There are no studies to prove the theory that cats can sense illness. There is, however, research to suggest dogs can sniff out odor signatures related to specific types of cancers and even illnesses like COVID-19. Dogs typically have slightly better noses than cats, but not by much. It’s not a stretch to believe cats have a similar ability.
Besides sniffing out actual illness, cats can also tell when people are sick by smelling things like cough drops and lotions. If you always use Vicks VapoRub when you have a cold, for example, it won’t take long for your cat to associate that smell with you being sick.
Cats Recognize Physical Symptoms
Your smell isn’t the only thing that changes when you’re sick. Many illnesses come with physical symptoms like rapid heart rate, high temperature, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, weight loss, or weight gain. If your cat spends significant time with you, they know what your heart usually sounds like. They also know what your skin usually feels like and what your breathing sounds like. They are observant enough to notice when these things change.
Your cat might not initially connect these bodily changes to an illness, but they might be intrigued enough to spend more time with you. This can make it seem like your cat is doing their best to make you feel better.
Cats Notice Behavioral Cues
How a person behaves when they’re sick is potentially the most obvious way a cat clues into human feelings and well-being. When you’re sick, your routine and mood changes. You don’t get up with your alarm, you don’t go to work, you stay in bed, you might forget to feed the cat–all of these behaviors send your cat a message.
Because cats love routine, they are hyper-aware when something in their environment (including your behavior) is different.
It’s unclear whether a cat will link these deviating behaviors to your actual illness. It is likely, however, that they’ll recognize patterns and act accordingly.
If you’re sick often, your cat might notice the pile of tissues by the couch and learn to anticipate a change in the routine. Your routine change might even inspire your cat to also switch it up.
If you stay in bed all day, that might encourage your cat to also stay close and cuddle instead of doing whatever they usually do. Their change in behavior makes you think they’re doing it to make you feel better. This might not be the case, but does that matter?
Whether or not cats know when you’re sick is still unclear. They can smell hormonal changes and notice physical symptoms. It’s also clear they recognize sickness-related behaviors. It’s hard to say, however, whether they have the cognitive ability to combine that sensory information and link it to how they themselves feel when they’re sick.
Therefore, any change in your cat’s behavior might simply be intrigue or confusion, and not a purposeful attempt to nurse you back to health. But that’s not important. If your cat helps you feel better when you’re sick, that’s all that matters.