For people who suffer from seizures, even a short trip to the grocery store can be a terrifying experience. It’s difficult to accomplish everyday tasks while constantly wondering if you’ll be incapacitated or even injured by a sudden neurological attack. Unfortunately, science has yet to discover a way to consistently predict seizures or to warn sufferers when they might occur.
But pets have proven surprisingly useful in accomplishing what, for humans, seems impossible. Both dogs and cats have been able to alert their owners of impending seizures, and sometimes other illnesses as well.
Nathan Cooper, a 19-year-old college student with epilepsy, has a cat named Lilly, who paces up and down the stairs and meows loudly when he’s about to have a seizure. Her behavior allows Nathan and his parents to prepare for his seizures by making sure he’s in a safe place and that someone is present in case he needs medical attention. Nathan’s mother is convinced, as she told the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, that Lilly has saved Nathan’s life at least once. Several other cats have reportedly shown similar behavior, but the phenomenon is relatively new, and scientists have yet to study it in detail.
While cats who sense seizures are rare, dogs who can do so are becoming more and more common, and many have been registered as service animals. These dogs can’t be taught to recognize seizures, but rather are born with the ability and trained to communicate their knowledge to their owners. There are a few organizations devoted to finding and training these talented dogs, but, because the ability is undetectable until a dog is exposed to someone who suffers from seizures, providing enough dogs for all those who might need them is a difficult task. When someone with epilepsy does have such a dog, however, the relationship can be life changing. As Donna Jacobs told National Geographic, her adopted German Shepherd puppy, Patra, gave her a second chance at life, transforming her from “a recluse…afraid to go anywhere,” to a successful businesswoman by allowing her to find a job and live a normal life. Patra alerts Jacobs to her seizures by butting her head into Jacobs’ knees, and, according to Jacobs, is never wrong about an impending attack.
But it’s not just seizures that pets are learning to detect. A 2006 study showed that dogs have the ability to detect cancer in many patients by smelling their breath. Researchers are uncertain what chemical or scent is detectable to dogs that allows them to accomplish this feat, but it could be a useful preliminary step for cancer detection, and may lead to new methods of finding cancer by chemical means.
For centuries, humankind has recognized the uncanny abilities of many animals to predict things that seem to be unpredictable, but only recently have we begun to recognize the potential of our pets to save lives by telling us when we’re sick. Hopefully, we can continue to discover and benefit from these remarkable abilities.