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Last Updated: Friday, 27 July 2007, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Can pets sense illness?
The Magazine answers...

A cat has apparently "predicted" the deaths of 25 residents in a nursing home in the US. It seems fanciful but can pets detect illness or even death?

Oscar in the nursing home
Oscar displayed sudden affection for dying residents
The residents of Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Centre in Rhode Island would be forgiven for getting a little anxious if Oscar was to curl up next to them.

Not generally friendly to patients, this show of affection has been used to warn families that their loved one has not long to go.

Sounds far-fetched? Animal behaviour experts in the US say Oscar is probably smelling a chemical given off by the body.

Yes, dogs can sense cancer and epilepsy
And Jacqueline Pritchard, an expert in animal behaviour in the UK, agrees the explanation is biochemical, rather than psychic.

"I don't doubt that the cat in this case is sensing death approaching. There's little we really know about it but as the body is shutting down, I would hypothesise that the cat is sensing and smelling the organs shutting down."

But there could also be a more simple explanation for Oscar's "ability", she says.

A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
"We change our behaviour when we know someone is dying, so animals will pick that up."

Dogs with an acute sense of smell and awareness are known to detect cancer and predict epileptic seizures.

A ground-breaking study by Dr John Church, published in 2004, claimed to prove in principle that dogs could detect bladder cancer in urine. Since then a pilot study at a charity in Buckinghamshire has continued the research.

There is also anecdotal evidence of dogs scenting a wide range of cancers such as lung, breast and skin, ahead of conventional diagnosis.


A woman in Wiltshire said her Chihuahua detected her breast cancer on three occasions, while a Dalmatian kept smelling a freckle that the owner discovered was a malignant tumour.

He doesn't get a crystal ball and headscarf and say 'I predict you will have one three weeks on Tuesday'
Tony Brown-Griffin on Ajay
The work of dogs in epilepsy is more advanced. The charity Support Dogs has provided 45 seizure alert dogs to epileptics such as Tony Brown-Griffin, 35, from Kent.

Twelve years ago, prior to her getting her first alert dog, she was suffering 12 major seizures a week and countless minor ones, so was housebound and childless. Now she is independent and a mother of two.

Ajay, a golden retriever, licks her left hand 40 minutes before a major seizure, which only happens twice a week now, so she can get herself out of harm's way.

Hannah and Milo
Seizure alert dogs accompany epileptics
"It's a major stress reduction. I don't have to worry about epilepsy at all unless my dog alerts me. Before I was thinking 'Do I have time to cross the road, will I have a seizure?'"

But neither Tony nor her husband knows exactly how Ajay is doing it, because the slight changes in Tony's behaviour prior to a seizure are imperceptible to them.

"He doesn't get a crystal ball and headscarf and say 'I predict you will have one three weeks on Tuesday' but whether it's a change in blood pressure or body temperature or whether I sweat or smell differently, or a combination of things.

"In the early days it was very difficult to go with the dog because I would feel so well but he was 100% accurate, 100% of the time."

Despite the persuasive evidence of dogs' prowess in these areas, the case of Oscar the cat is still a bit of a mystery, says animal psychologist Roger Mugford. Although they can detect illness, he has never known of pets picking up on impending death, and cats would be unlikely candidates to behave like this if they could.

45 provided by Support Dogs
Training can take between 12 and 18 months
During that time a client is matched with a dog
There is no preference for particular breeds
The way they warn owners varies
Facial expression, certain movement, a smell or pupil dilation are the kinds of changes they can pick up on
Source: Support Dogs

"The question is what motivates a cat to engage in this behaviour. Dogs being trained to detect cancer are trained with a pay-off of play if they do the right thing and if it's your own dog they have a familiar affectionate relationship and will pick the site of the tumour. But a cat in a nursing home?

"Dogs are very good at picking up on emotional changes and when people are depressed and inactive they are very good at comforting people in these circumstances. Elephants show the same altruistic tendencies, but not cats, they are very much more selfish, solitary creatures."

One theory about how dogs have evolved this capacity is that their wolf ancestors developed an ability to tell when one of the pack was sick.

But it is not just in health that the heightened senses of animals have proved to be more advanced than humans'.

Scientists remarked at how few wild animals died in the Asian tsunami in 2004, because they were able to sense the disaster and move to higher ground.

Here is a selection of your comments.

I had a sick chicken a few months a go (we had eight at the time) and thought it very odd when my pet cat sought out the chicken and curled up next to her - an hour or so later the chicken was dead. The cat had never done this before or since with any of the other chickens.
sue, Hampshire

When I was a child we had a spaniel. When she was a pup she was friendly with a Labrador along the road. As they got older they didn't see one another. Suddenly one day, our spaniel turned up quite out the blue at the home of the Labrador, was given access to the house, sought out the Labrador, sniffed him for a short time and came back home. Two days later the Labrador died. The houses were about a quarter of a mile apart.
Mike, Edinburgh

I have always had at least one cat, and have noticed how they pick up on my mood. If I am upset or ill, my cat will come straight to me to provide comfort. I even observed this with a cat we took in from a rescue shelter, who would not come anywhere near me when I felt well! I think it is more extraordinary for a cat to do this (and they clearly do) despite being independent creatures, whereas a dog is dependant, and it is in their interest to keep their host happy.
Jane, Kent

Cats also show an empathy for people who are suffering a bereavement. When my father died, and my mother came to stay with us, both our cats would not leave her side and even slept on the bed with her, something we don't normally allow, but we could see the comfort she was getting from them.
Helen Waite, Appleton, Abingdon, UK

My family cat, also called Oscar, almost predicted our family dog's death. She had been ill for some time and we decided to have her put down at our house. Oscar and the dog had never been particularly friendly, but in the hours leading to her death, Oscar never left her side and was cuddling her. I don't know if it was psychic or due to him being able to tell biologically, but it was nice for the old dog.
Hilary, Edinburgh

I have known cats to behave in this way. When my mother was dying of cancer her normally aloof British Blue cat spent almost 24 hours a day lying next to her on the bed. More recently, when I was laid up earlier this year with glandular fever my two cats who never normally stay in the house during the day spent three days snuggled up with me on the sofa. I have also owned boxer dogs in the past, both of whom would spend hours cuddled up to whoever in the household was under the weather. There doesn't always need to be a logical explanation for these things - sometimes they just are!
Jane, Preston

Our budgie went into a squawking fit within seconds of our first gerbil dying. Three weeks later it did the same thing when our second gerbil died. Animal instinct needs further attention.
Brian, Slough

Animals may pick up pre-deceasement because of a change in chemicals given off by the person in question. This could be due to the breakdown of enzymatic activity. As to weather forecasting this could be due to the obvious one of high or low pressure. Other than that I am sure there is nothing paranormal involved although the theory is more exciting. People who have had a near death experience often claim to have travelled along a wide tunnel with a bright light and a sensation of peace. This is probably due to a lack of oxygen. All rather mundane but probably the more accurate.
Maurice de Ville, Chesterfield

I worked night shift in a care home and I would take my dog to work with me. One evening after bedding down the residents; myself and the other member of staff, were having a tea break, when my dog started pacing between me and a resident's room. After the second time he came back, we followed him, to the room only to discover the resident had died following a massive heart attack. I am convinced that animals are able to sense death.
Hazel O'Neill, Scotland

I do not agree that cats are very selfish and unfeeling. When I had a miscarriage and was in mourning my cat offered me more comfort than any human. He waited for me to sit down at 11am each day and purred and comforted me when I was crying. He definitely sensed my emotions and helped me recover more quickly.
J. Turner, Torquay Devon UK

For a large part of last year I was having several seizures a week, our dog (who we only got in December '05) was able to pick up on it and would alert my wife by walking beside her and nudging her. If we were at home alone, when I came round after a seizure I would always find him next to me. And he would stay with me until he felt I was okay.
Rick, Toronto, On, Canada

When I was a child living in Canada, we had a Russian wolfhound who never displayed the slightest sign of intelligence! But one day, he tore into the house in terror and hid in the basement, flatly refusing to come out. The weather was clear and fine and we could see and hear nothing unusual to have upset him. Exactly 40 minutes later (to the minute) we experienced a major, grade four, tornado which destroyed a vast majority of the county. Once the storm had passed, he came out of the basement and never entered it again!
Charlotte Cheshire, Telford, England

My cat always sits next to me when I feel unwell. She will stay there for hours, whilst normally she doesn't bother that much. OK - she may detect physical or behavioural changes in me which cause her to do this. Explain this one though. In the 80s, I lived in London and would come home most weekends. When I came in my mother would have a cup of tea waiting for me on the table. How did she know when to make it? Because about 5-10 minutes before I arrived home, my cat would sit in the window and start crying. Every single time. Sense of smell or detection of mood change? Probably not. I like to think it is psychic ability. I can't really think of another explanation.
Gill, Newport Gwent

I think there is an inexplicable and possibly mystic connection between animals and humans. My cat left our house and went to live up the road with an elderly neighbour. He lived there for over two years and in that time he never came home. The neighbour became ill and was taken to hospital. Although we were feeding the cat he never left her house. Then one day about two weeks later he suddenly showed up at house, curled up and went to sleep. About half an hour passed, and we received a phone call telling us our neighbour had died about half an hour ago. I've never been able to explain it but I do believe there are things that are just unexplainable.
Erica Fowler, London

Maybe the cat is going by biochemical signals and IS rewarded, by attention from the staff every time he gets it right? Another possible explanation would be that he is reverting to his wild state. In the wild he couldn't attack something the size of a person but if the person is dying the wild animal which detects that first is first in the queue for eating the body. Don't jackals etc gather long before someone is actually dead? At a less bloodthirsty level he might see people as a threat but very sick people don't have the energy to lash out while still being warm to cuddle up to. I have noticed that wild animals were much less fearful of me when I was ill and came closer. I assume this was because my movements were slower and more predictable. I looked less likely to attack them.
Louise, Edinburgh

Our old tabby, Kinky, climbed into the bed and curled up on my mother's stomach hours before she died. Lifted off, he climbed back up and resumed the same position. Kinky had never been affectionate toward my mother, and I found his behaviour inexplicable until I read the story about Oscar.
Mari, Honolulu, USA

I have heard of stories of cats leaving the home of someone who was dying a day or so before the death and not returning until a couple of days after the death. In fact I heard of one case where a woman knew she was terminally ill and knew it would be imminent as the cat left - and sure enough, the cat was right!
Lisa Perkins, Nottingham

I don't know how animals do this or whether it is just coincidental but I do know that my cat, Odin, woke me up one night with really loud wailing in my ear and pushing his head into my face and he seemed really alarmed. Eventually he calmed down and left me alone. The next morning it turned out there was an earthquake in Birmingham I think it was and scientists said that their detectors had detected it as far away as London. I cannot help but wonder if it was the earthquake he was trying to alert me to.
Andy, Bristol UK

A couple of coincidences, people make a silly superstitious association. Then when the moggy the curls up on their bed - superstition leads to psychosomatic illness in an already weakened person. Self-fulfilling prophecy and all that... Then again, maybe people on the way out just give off more heat) Statistical question - How many people does that cat settle down next to that don't imminently die? At any rate, let's hope someone has been sensible enough to check the cat isn't carrying any pathogens. Whatever, I think the cat should be re-housed. Maybe it's doing contract work for the grim reaper?
Dave Pritchard, Manchester

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