How Your Dog Knows When You’re Sick

I will do anything I can to avoid admitting I’m sick. I take a double dose of my usual allergy medication when my nose gets stuffy. I blame my building’s dry heating system for my scratchy throat. I chalk up my lethargy and malaise to the fact that I spend roughly 14 hours a day on the internet.

The one symptom I cannot ignore, however, is my dog’s tiny head, resting on my leg during a portion of the day when she’s usually ignoring me. When she knows, I can no longer pretend I don’t.

Midge, my 12-pound rescue pup, isn’t the world’s most affectionate dog. We get along great, but she has her own hobbies: horrifically dismembering her cute little plush toys, chewing through her chew-proof bed. But as soon as even a mild head cold starts to take hold of me, my dog is transformed. She’s no longer her usual self, jabbing a dagger paw into my ribs to prod me into throwing her ball. Instead, she’s Doctor Midge, Medicine Chihuahua, ready to nurse me back to health by cuddling up against me (or on top of me) at all times.

Although I’m of the firm belief that my dog is a unique and special angel, it’s easy to find tales of other pets comforting or guarding their people during times of illness or injury. I was sick last week, and as Midge was glued to my side, friends told me about their own pets attending to them around the clock after everything from surgery to stomach troubles. (For the record, Midge didn’t care when I sliced my hand open while washing dishes last month.)

According to researchers who study canine cognition, it’s usually not just pet owners’ imagination. Pups really do know when their humans are having a rough time, and they use a rich variety of signals to figure it out. Not only can your pet tell when you have the sniffles, but domestic dogs have shown an aptitude for detecting both much more minute mood fluctuations and far more serious physical conditions.

Over centuries of breeding, domestic pups have become even more finely attuned to humans than they are to any of their fellow dogs. When coupled with their incredible sensory abilities, such an intense connection is potentially an enormous boon to human health. Beyond common seasonal illnesses, some dogs have also shown the ability to accurately detect malaria, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. And beyond detection, research suggests that dog ownership can have a variety of health and mood benefits in and of itself. Dogs can help people relax, and they can be a comfort to those with autism or those who are dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Among dogs, chihuahuas aren’t known for having an especially acute sense of smell, but they are said to be particularly protective of their owners. Midge has been known to fight the vacuum for my safety. Even if she is more run-of-the-mill house pet than disease-detecting superdog, it feels nice to have a warm little pup fall asleep on your lap, potentially out of concern for your well-being, when you’re feeling cruddy.

In a certain sense, she is helping. Next time she kicks me in the ribs to expel a toy from my hands, I won’t hold it against her.

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