Cancer-Sniffing Cats

Superior smell allows cats to detect body chemistry changes caused by illness.
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You've heard about dogs who smelled cancer on their human companions, and reports are cropping up that cats are getting in on the diagnostic act. Maybe it's just to prove that they're every bit as talented as the dogs, but cancer-sniffing cats have saved more than one life.

The Reports

Cats far and wide are being credited with alerting their humans to cancerous tumors -- and not simply skin cancer or moles which might be considered the easy-to-detect kind because they exist on the outside of the body. No, these cats are detecting complex cancers buried deep within the body.

A cat in Alberta, Canada, reportedly warned his human friend that there was a soda can-sized tumor in his left lung by continuously pawing at the man's side. And in Tennessee, a woman was prompted to see her doctor about a bruised area on her breast when her cat paid repeated and unusual attention to it, resulting in a breast cancer diagnosis and early treatment.

No Research ... Yet

Although researchers have been studying dog's talents in the cancer-sniffing arena since the first few reports of a dog diagnosing carcinoma began being taken seriously, the evidence for cats' ability to sniff out cancer is anecdotal at this point. Scientists are even finding that mice possess some aptitude in detecting lung cancer, but so far no controlled studies have been published about cancer sniffing cats ... yet.

Why Not Cats?

It's possible that cats haven't thus far become the subjects of cancer-smelling research because scientists haven't yet figured out how to motivate a cat to detect cancer. Dogs can be trained to do so with a reward-type system, but cats don't often go in for that sort of thing. Plus, even with dogs, researchers have realized that regardless of the breed or the aptitude for learning, dogs that are the best at sniffing out cancer really enjoy their jobs -- they are compelled to smell. Cats, on the other hand, can rarely be compelled to do anything, which could put them down a few notches on the list of animals that cancer researchers want to work with.

The Comfort of Oscar

Cancer isn't the only health issue cats have been credited with being able to detect. Rhode Island physician David Dosa wrote an article for the “New England Journal of Medicine” as well as a book about a cat named Oscar who lived at a nursing home where the doctor worked. The cat was a typical housecat, but what warranted him a starring role in a journal article and a book was his ability to predict which patients would die next. The theory behind how the cat knew who would be leaving this world next is that his superior olfactory sense allowed him to smell the subtle yet distinct odor of a body that is shutting down.

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