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Do Cats Know When You Are Sick? Facts & FAQ

Chris Dinesen Rogers

By Chris Dinesen Rogers

sick woman with a cat on her lap

Roughly 46.5 million American households have a cat among their family members1. Many pet owners will tell you about their unique relationship with their feline companions. It stems from the fact that scientists theorize they chose us instead of humans domesticating them2. That also explains why cats are still in touch with their wild side, more so than dogs.

It stands to reason that living together for these 12,000 or so years of domestication would forge bonds between cats and humans. It turns out that our pets can read our emotions. Cats also may be able to tell when we’re sick, perhaps in part because of the ways we act when we’re unwell. It comes naturally to a predator that must know its world intimately to survive.

The Emotional Connection

Living together would undoubtedly give felines an edge from observing us. After all, it behooves them to know what’s going on with the person who feeds and shelters them. Research has shown that cats can indeed use visual and auditory clues about our behavior to adjust theirs accordingly3. Your pet would likely recognize you sleeping more or sneezing and coughing.

However, it’s more than just realizing something is amiss. Another study found that cats form social bonds with their owners when compared to patterns seen in human infants4. This connection has been long in the making. Felines initially were mousers that we let live with us for pest control. The Ancient Egyptians may have taken our relationship to the next level by making them animal companions.

woman bonding with calico cat
Photo Credit: Kristi Blokhin, Shutterstock

The Signals You Send to Your Cat

Cats like routines. They undoubtedly know your usual schedule and may adjust their own to fit yours. That’s especially true if there are other things that reinforce them, such as an alarm ringing to wake you and for your pet to get fed. If you’re sick, you’re probably not following the same routine. You’re sleeping later or staying in bed. Felines pick up on these breaks in the action.

Remember that cats can read you and translate it into something meaningful to them. Don’t forget the emotional factor. You may feel slightly depressed being ill. Your family members may also show concern, which alerts your pet. That applies to the little things, like a cold, and even some illnesses on a much larger scale.

The Case of Oscar

We know that cats have the instinct to sense changes in their environment. They know how to read our body language. Science has also shown that domestication has fostered an emotional attachment. However, our pets are perhaps better observers than we may think. An excellent example and compelling evidence for proof that cats know when we are sick comes from Oscar.

Oscar was the resident cat at the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island. Through his years at the facility, he developed an uncanny ability to predict the death of patients. He would visit an individual, providing comfort for them. The staff didn’t dismiss his visits as pure coincidence after the 50 deaths he attended.

orange tabby cat sniffing a man
Image Credit: Magui RF, Shutterstock


Can Cats Distinguish Their Owners From Strangers?

Yes, research suggests that cats can distinguish their owners’ voices from others. Of course, there are also the distinctive scents a pet would recognize.

Can Cats Help Us With Their Presence?

Absolutely! Cats make excellent therapy animals. They can help individuals with emotional issues like depression.

How Else Can Cats Figure Out if I Am Sick?

Scientists have observed that cats can read your facial expressions and associate them with feline vocalizations. That association could give them a reference point; for example, if you’re grimacing in pain.

Final Thoughts

Our longer relationship with dogs has given them the recognition as man’s best friend. However, we would do our feline companions an injustice if we didn’t acknowledge their unique relationship with people. Cats can read us much better than we give them credit for. That even comes down to knowing when we’re sick, and they can provide plenty of comfort when we need it most.

Featured Image Credit: Pormezz, Shutterstock

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