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How Dogs Know When We Are Sick

It’s pretty much universal…bring it up in a crowd of people and most will validate your story with a similar…

Dogs Know When We're sick

It’s pretty much universal…bring it up in a crowd of people and most will validate your story with a similar happenstance in their own life. Our dogs know when we’re sick or in pain.

• Holiday Barn Pet Resort’s Pack member, Heather, had ACL Reconstructive surgery a few years back. Her dog, Duke, who is normally a busy-bee, laid beside her for weeks on end as she recovered, and escorted her during any quick trips away from the couch.
• A friend of mine suffered an aneurysm and was one of the fortunate ones who, after extensive surgery, survived. During his recovery at home, not only did his dog lay quietly by his feet, but knew to leap upon the bed softly and move very slowly.
• Another Holiday Barn Pet Resort’s Pack member, Stacey’s daughter, Julia, had major surgery that committed her to bed rest for weeks. Their dog, Buddy, still a young pup, laid by Julia’s cast or cuddled up at her neck the entire time.

Your Dog Loves You, So It Makes Sense They Can Tell When Something is Off

You may argue that in each of the above cases, the dog’s owner required bed rest… What dog doesn’t like to hang-out in the bed with their owner? I mean, say the word “bed” and my dog is ready to go! Maybe there is a very slight truth to that. But what about the other reactions like accompanying their owners around the house? Knowing when to be gentle? Do a search on the web and you’ll see thousands of testimonies from people whose dog either became very caring or very protective when their owners were unwell or hurt. I think the reasons for our dogs reacting to our pain or sickness goes way deeper than just bed time with members of the pack.

How do dogs know that we are sick or hurt?

There are three disticnt ways a dog can tell that we are sick or hurt:

  1. Body language
  2. Smell
  3. Energy

Body Language

Dogs are much better at reading us than we are of reading them. They are masters of observation. They notice subtle differences in everything we do. When we feel bad, we may act more tired than usual… maybe our gait is not as peppy, or maybe we are slouching. We’re moving slower and our facial features are less animated. Dogs are super in-tune with our energy output and can quickly sense an energy drain. They even pick up on different inflections in our voice.

This isn’t really a “body language” thing, but it’s appropriate as we discuss our dog’s impressive sense of observation… Have you ever noticed how upsetting it is for them if we change our routine? When we don’t get up and go to work when we are supposed to, their whole world is suddenly out of whack. So if we miss work because we’re sick, that’s kind of a big hint that something is wrong. If I don’t get up and go to work at my normally scheduled time, my dog will pace at my feet, looking up at my face as if to say, “Hey, are you forgetting something?” No doubt I’ve thrown-off his schedule, right?


It’s kind of gross to talk about, but I’m sure you’ve noticed that when you are getting a cold, there is a distinctly nasty taste in your mouth and smell on your breath! When you are sick, your metabolism changes and you have different chemicals on your breath. Scientists say that even our body odor is different. Dogs are masters at detecting the most subtle changes in our odor… odors that another human probably wouldn’t even notice.

Much research has been done in the last few decades to study a dog’s ability to detect illnesses via his incredible olfactory system… from the common cold, to malignant cancers. I read an article in “Psychology Today” that outlines several studies that put the canine “sniffer” to the test. These studies proved the dog’s ability to sniff-out several types of cancers: melanoma, lung, breast, bladder, and colon. Some of these cancers were caught by the dog before ever being diagnosed by a physician. Isn’t that amazing?

Medically trained dogs can smell changes in blood sugar levels by identifying the presence of keytones in the bloodstream. They have been trained to respond to diabetic episodes, the onset of a seizure, the beginning of a heart attack, the rising of blood pressure, and of an oncoming panic attack. They can even read changes in our respiration rates. If their sense of smell is that advanced, it should be a no-brainer that they know when we are in pain or are sick.

It has been said that dogs can even smell the change in hormones. Although I could find no published scientific proof that dogs sense when a woman is expecting, there are hundreds of anecdotes online of women who noticed changes in their dog’s behavior during their pregnancy. Heather’s dog, Duke, that we spoke of earlier, said that she and her husband noticed a change in him even before they knew she was pregnant. “Duke showed signs of stress, like chewing his feet, whining, drooling… and he started sleeping on the floor at night rather than in bed with us like usual.” It just makes sense with all the hormones flooding a woman’s body when she is pregnant, that it is bound to alter her scent somehow. It also makes sense that Duke became stressed. He knew there was a change in Heather, he just didn’t know “what” or “why” and it was disturbing to him. A lot of women report that their dogs suddenly became much more protective, attentive, and loving when they were pregnant, following them everywhere, and even sniffing or nuzzling their belly.


I think we all have a general understanding of our energy, or our qi (chi). Our dogs are very attuned to the type of energy a person is emitting, whether it be positive or negative. In fact, it is believed that dogs pay more attention to our energy and emotions than our actual words or actions. When we are content and happy and all is right with the world, we emit a positive, balanced energy. When something is wrong, whether it physically or mentally, we emit negative energy that our dogs quickly pick up on. Medically, some believe dogs actually pick up on the changes in brain chemistry. Wow.

A few years back at Camp Holiday Barn, 4-6 of our Campers abruptly stopped playing and rather nervously gathered near one of our Camp Attendants. Within minutes, she dropped to the ground in an epileptic seizure. These dogs were not trained medical dogs… just our sweet little Campers enjoying a day of play. So what happened? Our Attendant said she felt fine and the seizure was totally unexpected. Her body language was, in her human view, normal and positive. Was she exhibiting some type of body language that neither she nor her co-workers were aware of? Did the dogs pick up on changes in her brain chemistry? Did they smell changes in her blood or hormones?

Interesting, isn’t it?

A side note… Dogs have an extraordinary knack of sensing happiness in us. When we’re happy, they’re happy! When we’re sick, hurting, or unhappy, they are usually the first to know it. When our positive energy falls, I believe they so want to make things right again. To me, this explains why they will lay beside us in the bed when we are unwell, or lay their head on our knee when we’re sad, or… In their own angelic little ways, they offer comfort and closeness, because they know this makes us feel better.

Dogs are so wonderful!

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