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Can Dogs Tell When You’re Sick? Asked & Answered - PawSafe

Can Dogs Tell When You’re Sick? Asked & Answered

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

can dogs tell when you’re sick

Dogs, often dubbed as “man’s best friend,” do not just offer companionship and unconditional love but also seem to possess an innate ability to understand and perceive human emotions, pain, and possibly, even our health states. Can dogs truly discern when we are unwell, sensing the subtle physiological and behavioral shifts in their human companions? This intriguing exploration sheds light on the potential empathetic and perceptive capabilities of our furry friends, particularly in the context of human illness.

As we delve into the mysteries of a dog’s perceptual world, it is pivotal to acknowledge the reciprocal nature of our relationship with them. Just as we may ponder on their potential to recognize our ailing states, it’s incumbent upon us to ensure their well-being and vitality are consistently nurtured. Nurturing your pet’s health with apt nutritional supplementation, like the Multivitamin Soft Chews from Pawsafe, can be instrumental in enhancing their wellness and potentially sharpening their perceptual faculties.

Navigating through the enigma of canine perception, this article will harness insights from proficient sources, notably the works of experts like Dr. Deborah Wells, a prominent psychologist and researcher, to afford a scientific elucidation. Wells has dedicated substantial research into exploring the depth of the dog-human bond and the empirical underpinnings that might explain whether dogs truly can detect our physical and emotional ebbs and flows, especially during times of sickness.

Dogs Sensing Health Issues: What The Science Says

There has been a lot of research recently into whether dogs can tell if we are sick and how they may help us with different conditions. So, let’s look at what recent studies tell us about dogs sensing human sickness.

1. Dogs Can Smell Cancer

Have you ever noticed your furry friend a bit too fixated on a particular spot on your body, perhaps a mole or a patch of skin, sniffing intently with that adorable, yet curiously intense gaze? Imagine if that unassuming canine curiosity was actually a manifestation of their astonishing ability to detect lurking ailments. The concept of dogs sniffing out diseases, particularly cancer, is as enchanting as it is scientifically intriguing. But plenty of research shows that dogs can smell cancer.

Back in 1989, Williams and Pembroke shared a fascinating story in the Lancet about a border collie/Doberman pinscher mix that seemed persistently interested in a mole on its owner’s leg. The twist in the tale? That particular mole was later diagnosed as a malignant lesion. This was not an isolated case. Various anecdotes have popped up over time in newspapers and scientific journals alike, highlighting similar instances where dogs have shown a peculiar interest in what later turned out to be cancerous masses. 

So, what’s behind this remarkable canine ability? Well, the answer may be hiding in their phenomenally acute sense of smell. Tumors, as they develop, often emit distinct odorous compounds that find their way into our breath and sweat among other routes. For dogs, whose olfactory prowess allows them to detect scents in extraordinarily minute quantities, identifying these compounds is something they might do, knowingly or not, as part of their instinctual sniffing.

Now, while there are those who believe some dogs have an intrinsic knack for pinpointing the scent of cancerous cells, research has shown that many can be trained to develop this life-saving skill. A pioneering study conducted by Willis and colleagues in 2004 demonstrated the potential here. 

2. Dogs Can Predict Seizures

For ages, there have been whispers and stories about dogs miraculously sensing when a person is about to have a seizure. But until recently, this was mostly chalked up to be heartwarming tales and not much was proven in the science department. However, new research is hinting that there might be some genuine, scientific credence to these furry tales after all! (Dalziel, Uthman, McGorray, & Reep, 2003)

You see, recent studies and work have started showing that, yes, some dogs do indeed have this wild ability to detect when a seizure is coming on. Even crazier? With the right training, a bunch of dogs might be able to keep an eye out for signs that a seizure is about to hit, and then alert their human in some way, like barking or even pawing.

Now, you might be thinking, “How in the doggy world can they do this?!” Well, we’re still figuring it out! Some think it could be something visual – that dogs pick up on tiny changes in a person’s face or posture. Others think our pups might be spotting other signs, like changes in our muscle tension, breathing, or even a scent we give off. (Brown & Strong, 2001; Kirton et al.)

But it’s not all straight forward. While the idea of every dog being a potential seizure detector sounds fantastic, not all of them react the same way when they spot an incoming seizure. So, making sure we choose and train these pups correctly is key to making sure they can really lend a helping paw when it’s needed.

Isn’t it just mind-blowing to think that our furry pals might be capable of such incredible feats? Dogs being not only our friends but also potential life-savers? It’s a beautiful thought, and with more research and training, who knows how many more lives these wonderful creatures might save! Here’s to more discoveries, and of course, to our amazing four-legged friends.

3. Can Dogs Really Predict Hypoglycemia?

Oh, the incredible world of dogs and their super sniffers! From finding their way back home over incredible distances to sniffing out hidden treats, their noses seem to pull off some remarkable feats. But did you know that some dogs might also be acting as furry little health monitors for people with diabetes? Yep, that’s right! Let’s dive nose-first into how our pooches might be playing a role in detecting hypoglycemia.

Imagine you’re living with diabetes. Hypoglycemia, or super low blood sugar levels, becomes a dangerous tightrope you sometimes have to walk. But hey, what if your four-legged buddy could give you a little heads-up before things go south? Fascinatingly, there’s some scientific chatter suggesting that dogs might just have this amazing ability!

Some early research has hinted that a good chunk (over one-third!) of dogs living with diabetic owners have shown some changes in their behavior when their human pals are experiencing hypoglycemic episodes. Even more astonishing? Some dogs might be able to alert their owners before the humans themselves notice any symptoms! This means diabetic alert dogs are increasingly common.

How Can Dogs Tell When We Are Sick?

Let’s explore the myriad of ways our furry friends might be able to tell when we’re under the weather, using their incredible sensory skills.

  1. Smelling Chemical Changes: Dogs’ noses are spectacularly sensitive, allowing them to pick up on the faintest of scents in their environment that may even tell them when bad weather is coming, such as those emitted by our bodies when we’re unwell. This can include detecting specific volatile organic compounds produced by cancer cells or even identifying a shift in the scent of our sweat during hypoglycemic episodes.
  2. Visual Cues: Sometimes, it’s all in the eyes – and the posture and gait too! Dogs might notice if we’re moving differently, whether it’s a sluggish drag after a sleepless night or a pained limp from muscle soreness, our physical changes don’t go unnoticed by those watchful canine eyes.
  3. Body Language and Facial Expressions: Our furry pals are keen observers of our expressions and body language. Subtle signs like furrowed brows, grimaces of pain, or hunching over could be signals to our pups that something’s amiss, and they’re often right beside us, tail wagging, ready to comfort.
  4. Sudden Sweat Signals: A swift onset of sweating, especially during hypoglycemic episodes, isn’t just felt by us but possibly sensed by our dogs too. These sudden changes in our physical state might be a red flag to our perceptive pets that we need a helping hand…or paw!
  5. Muscle Tension and Discomfort: Dogs may detect our physical discomfort, such as muscle tension or changes in our posture, possibly even before we fully recognize it ourselves! Their attuned observation skills might notice the stiff way we move or the subtle winces that give away our pain.
  6. Hearing Our Ailments: The sensitivity of dogs’ ears is no secret, but they might hear more than we think, tuning into any alterations in our voice, the rhythm of our breathing, or even the beat of our hearts to sense our wellbeing.
  7. Sensing Emotional Shifts: Beyond the physical, our emotional states might also be on our dogs’ radars. From feeling blue to anxiety simmering beneath the surface, our dogs might sense these emotional tides, often providing a comforting nuzzle when we need it most. A study that you can read more about here delves deeper into this empathetic canine connection.

Isn’t it astounding how our bond with dogs intertwines with not just the joyous moments of fetch and belly rubs, but also in the silent, subtle realms of our physical and emotional wellness? They navigate through the world, their noses leading the way, possibly picking up on the silent signals of our health and emotions, always ready to lend a paw or a comforting presence when we navigate through rough time

How Do Dogs Act When You Are Sick?

Navigating the world with wet noses and warm hearts, dogs have this uncanny, almost mystic ability to tune into human emotions and, sometimes, our physical states. But how exactly do our canine companions act when they sense we’re not in top shape? Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think!

  1. The Clingy Comforters: Some dogs transform into velcro pups, sticking by your side and offering soulful eyes of concern when you’re under the weather. Their unwavering presence, a silent vigil beside you, can be immensely comforting, albeit a tad clingy! Curious about why they become a permanent lap fixture? Discover more here.
  2. The Alerters: Then there are those intuitive four-legged friends who seem to nudge, bark, or paw, potentially trying to alert you (or someone else) that something’s amiss. Their perceptive natures guide them to recognize when things are ‘off,’ though their communication methods might vary wildly from one dog to the next.
  3. The Unfazed Ones: On the flip side, some dogs may not exhibit any noticeable change in behavior, either due to their personality or simply because they might not comprehend the gravity of the situation. It’s not a lack of care, but perhaps a lack of understanding or knowing how to react.
  4. The Anxious Observers: Amidst the myriad of possible reactions, there are dogs that become anxious upon sensing their human isn’t well. This anxiety may manifest in various behaviors, such as chewing paws or exhibiting other stress indicators like showing the whale eye.
  5. The Sensitive Souls: Some pups might mirror your emotions or physical downturn, showcasing lethargy, or a general sense of depression. It’s a poignant reminder of how deeply interconnected our emotions can be with our furry friends. 
  6. The Reluctant Eaters: A sudden refusal to eat, especially from a typically food-motivated dog, can be their way of expressing concern or stress about your health. This change in appetite could be their silent protest or concern. 

Can Dogs Tell When You Are in Physical Pain?

When you’ve stubbed a toe or are nursing a killer headache, have you ever noticed your dog sidling up to you with those empathetic, soulful eyes?  Dogs, with their impressive emotional intelligence, often sense when their humans are in physical pain. But how do they figure it out?

  • Body Language Decoder: Dogs are astute observers of our body language. Any limping, wincing, or other outward displays of pain doesn’t go unnoticed. Your furry friend might observe the subtlest shift in your posture or a slight grimace on your face and understand that something is not quite right.
  • Scent of Discomfort: Your body chemistry changes when you’re in pain. Dogs, with their super-powered noses, might detect these subtle shifts in your scent, which could signal to them that you’re experiencing discomfort.
  • Vocal Clues: Groans of pain, heavy sighs, or other vocal indications of distress are like alarms for your dog, signaling that their beloved human needs some extra TLC.

In response, dogs might cuddle up to you, offering warmth and comfort. Some might fetch their favorite toy to cheer you up, while others may simply sit beside you, offering silent support through your ordeal.

Why Is My Dog Suddenly Following Me Everywhere; Am I Sick?

Imagine this: Your normally independent pooch has suddenly morphed into your second shadow, following you everywhere with a vigilance that’s both adorable and a tad perplexing. This clingy behavior, often termed ‘Velcro-dog syndrome,’ can stem from various causes, one of which might surprisingly be your health (but can also be due to many reasons).

  • They Sense Something’s Up: As discussed earlier, dogs might detect changes in your physical state or emotions, prompting an increase in their protective or nurturing instincts. Your health might be perfectly fine, but if you’re stressed or anxious, your dog may pick up on this and stick close, trying to offer comfort.
  • Age-Related Changes: If your pup is advancing in years, their sudden clinginess might be linked to cognitive changes or anxiety related to aging, rather than being related to your health.
  • Environmental Factors: Changes in the environment, new people, or alterations to their routine might cause stress, prompting them to seek reassurance through staying close to you.
  • Behavioral Issues: Separation anxiety or other behavioral challenges could also be the culprit behind your dog’s sudden attachment.

To decode the mystery of your dog’s new shadow-like tendencies, consider any changes in your environment, routine, or physical and emotional health. Consulting with a veterinarian or a pet behaviorist can provide valuable insights into why your pup has turned into a velvety shadow and how to navigate through this behavioral shift.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Can Dogs Tell If You’re Pregnant?

Yes, dogs often detect pregnancy due to their acute sense of smell and observation of physical and behavioral changes in the expecting individual, frequently becoming more protective or affectionate.

Can Dogs Sense Sickness and Death?

Dogs can sometimes sense sickness through altered scents and behaviors. Their ability to sense death remains scientifically inconclusive, yet many anecdotes suggest a possible awareness.

What Do Dogs Do When You’re Sick?

Dogs may respond to a sick owner by becoming more attentive, clingy, or protective. They might linger close by, bringing toys, or simply keeping a watchful eye to offer comfort.

Can Dogs Tell When You Have a Cold?

Dogs might notice you have a cold by detecting changes in your scent, hearing your coughs or sniffles, and observing variations in your behavior and energy levels.

Can Dogs Tell If You Have Cancer?

There are documented instances where dogs have detected certain types of cancer through scent, identifying changes in their owner’s body odor, breath, or specific areas on the skin.

Can Dogs Tell When You’re Sad?

Yes, dogs often recognize when their owners are sad, offering comfort through physical closeness, gentle nudges, or providing their favorite toys in an attempt to uplift spirits.

Final Thoughts

Navigating through the myriad of ways dogs perceive and respond to our physical and emotional states unfurls a captivating tapestry of interconnectedness. Whether through the subtle ebb and flow of our emotions or more pronounced physical ailments, our canine companions often weave themselves into our healing processes, offering comfort, alerting to potential dangers, and evermore deepening the rich, empathetic bonds that have been celebrated for centuries. Understanding and appreciating their sensitivities not only enhances our relationship with them but also opens new avenues for harnessing this understanding for mutual well-being and support.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.