By Katelyn Schutz, CPDT
We have all had that horrendous flu or illness that has knocked us off our feet, but some of us have an extra healing aid around… our pets! When I’m sick, my dog stays right by my side, as if holding vigil until I recover. As a professional pet sitter and dog walker, even my clients’ pets seem to know when I’m feeling under the weather, cuddling up a little sweeter, and understanding that our walk might not be as energetic that day. But can dogs really know and sense when we are sick?
The answer is yes! Dogs, in particular, have several special ways that help them indicate if a person is ill or not. One of those ways is with their amazing olfactory abilities, or rather, their miraculous sense of smell. Certain breed of dogs can have up to 40-50 times the scent receptors than us humans, making their sense of smell about 100,000 times stronger than ours! When a person is ill, their body chemistry will change, and a dog’s sensitive snout may be able to detect these subtle changes, letting them know we are sick. Dogs can be trained to sniff out volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the human body, helping with early detection for illnesses, including cancer. Often with 90% or more accuracy, the trained nose of a dog can smell lung cancer on someone’s breath, pinpoint the location of a mammary tumor, or detect bladder or prostate cancer from someone’s urine. A dog’s nose can alert us to blood sugar changes and ketone presence in diabetics, or let us know when someone with epilepsy is about to have a seizure. So if your pooch seems to be paying attention to a certain part of your body more than usual, perhaps it’s time to listen to canine companion and get it checked out!
Dogs also have a special knack of sensing happiness in humans. They can smell and sense the rise and fall in our feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. When we are ill, these hormones often plummet, and our dogs are usually the first to know it. This might explain why many pets are known to curl up next to a sick or depressed owner. Offering comfort and physical closeness many times will boost these feel-good hormones, and your dog is probably sensing that his or her presence increases your happiness, and ultimately makes you feel better. And after all, happiness is contagious, so your pet, in turn, feels good for boosting your mood. Win, win! This fact cannot be ignored when debating whether or not dogs feel empathy.
Our canine companions are also keen observers of our behavior, and can often tell when we aren’t feeling well, just by noticing subtle changes in our daily routines. Perhaps we are more tired and less mobile than usual, or we suddenly are home from work for a few days. The lack of energy you may feel when you’re sick is quickly sensed by your pets, letting them know you are feeling under the weather.
It’s also been noted that dogs can recognize our facial expressions. When we are tired and sick, the energy often leaves our faces, and our dogs see this happen. A dog sees this change in our behavior and expression, and a common response is that of appeasement. Many times over I hear owners tell me that their dog will actually lick the tears from their face when they are sad, as if they know comfort is needed now.
So next time you’re under the weather, let your hound help heal you!