How animals respond to human distress

How animals respond to human distress

In the summer of 2018, our contributor underwent chemotherapy to treat non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Her Siamese cats, Jack and Betty, appeared to notice.

September 29, 2019

While generally affectionate, my Siamese cats ramped up their attentiveness while I was sick. I often woke up from naps to find a dozing cat on my hip and a slew of gifts, mostly crinkly puffs, from them nearby.

Jack would bring toys to his human companion as she recovered at home from chemotherapy.

Now in remission, I think back and wonder if their change in behaviour was empathy or something else.

“I wouldn’t doubt that cats can sense when something is not right with their pet parent,” says Dr Miranda Logan, a veterinarian with a special interest in animal behaviour at Foothills Animal Hospital in Okotoks, Alberta. “The issue is that there isn’t much scientific data backing that up. The evidence is largely anecdotal. We’re still only part way in the domestication process for cats. We are way behind figuring out how sentient they are as a species. Dog are much further along and have learned to read humans.”

The research on canine behaviour is abundant. Many studies have shown that dogs detect and react to stress and illness in their humans. “We’ve got so many micro-expressions,” Dr Logan explains. “Dogs can sense changes in mood or health as soon as you walk in the house. I’ve been able to tell over the phone when some women are pregnant just based on the way they describe their pet’s behaviour. Dogs may do things like sniffing the woman more than usual, wanting to be at her side constantly and trying to put their heads on her stomach. Animals are incredibly sensitive.”

Sensing distress, providing comfort
Edmonton-based writer Jen Mallia witnessed her dog’s empathy when she was at home experiencing labour pains as she prepared to give birth to her first child.

A doula was present to help her cope with contraction pains by applying pressure to Mallia’s lower back as she kneeled down. “After a day or so, my dog started to mimic what the doula was doing and placed his paws on those same spots to comfort me,” she recalls. “It worked. He made me smile, laugh and relax.”

When I was undergoing chemo, I had 11 different drugs running through my system. After my first round of treatment, I remember both my cats sniffing me thoroughly when I got home from the hospital. And I’m sure, based on their constant presence, they sensed my increased levels of stress .

Siblings Jack and Betty showed signs of empathy when their Pawsie was treated for cancer.

Whatever their levels of understanding, Jack and Betty brought me joy when I needed it. I loved watching them do normal cat things, like rolling around ecstatically in a ray of sunshine. I am grateful they seem to know how much I needed their companionship without me ever saying a word.

Photo credits: Michele Sponagle

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