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Can a Cat Smell Cancer? What Science Says

Written by: Melissa Gunter

Last Updated on February 28, 2024 by Catster Editorial Team


Can a Cat Smell Cancer? What Science Says

Most days when you turn on the news, you’ll hear an amazing animal story. Whether it’s about a hero police K9, a dog who saved its family, or a cat who protected a child it loves, we all feel a bit giddy inside when these stories air. These aren’t the only stories we hear, however. Stories of dogs being able to sniff out illnesses in the human body have been told for ages. It’s even been researched. But what about cats? Can cats do the same miraculous things dogs can? Can a cat smell cancer?

Unfortunately, there’s no hard evidence to determine whether a cat can smell cancer, but there are those out there who say they have the potential to do it. Let’s take a deeper look at cats and whether their amazing noses could be put to use like their canine counterparts.

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Stories of Cats Detecting Cancer

There have been no formal studies done to determine whether cats can smell cancer. What we do have are stories told by cat owners who claim their kitties have saved their lives by sniffing out issues. One such case comes from a woman in Tennessee. According to the story, she had an odd bruise on her breast. For some reason, her cat was paying special attention to that area. The cat would even pounce on it as if it were trying to alert her to something. Noticing how her cat reacted to the bruise, the woman visited her doctor and soon found out she had breast cancer. This woman, a loving pet owner, credits her cat with her early detection and ability to beat the disease.

Another well-known story is that of a man from Alberta, Canada. His feline friend began to pay special attention to his left side. As time went on, the cat began to paw at the man’s side. Eventually, the man sought medical attention and discovered his cat was right. Unfortunately, the man was suffering from a tumor in his lung the size of a soda can. The cat owner felt the cat’s senses, especially its claws, were what led him to go to the doctor for tests in the first place.

cat smelling woman's chin
Image Credit: Koldunov Alexey, Shutterstock

Is It Possible for Cats to Smell Cancer?

With no solid research on the subject, the best way to determine whether cats could possibly detect cancer is to consider their noses. We all know that dogs have superior noses. They are used to find missing people, sniff out bombs, and have been tested with detecting illnesses with their noses. Cats may not have the sniffing strength that dogs do, but they are far better than humans at it. Cats use over 200 million odor sensors to help them sniff out prey, food, and danger. Humans have 5 million, which is why our cat’s sense of smell is 14 times greater than our own.

The biggest difference, however, between cats and dogs is their ability to discern what they are smelling. A scent receptor known as V1R is credited for allowing mammals to separate one scent from another they’ve experienced. Humans only have one of these proteins. Our canine friends have nine, and our aloof kitties have 30 V1R proteins in their noses. A study 1 was conducted that used this information to claim that cats have a more sensitive sense of smell than dogs, which means cats could be used in detection and rescue situations.


The Untrainable Feline

Now that we’ve realized cats have the tools, namely their noses, to smell cancer or other types of threats, why aren’t researchers testing cats and their sense of smell the same as they do with dogs? The answer is simple: Most people feel that cats are untrainable and less reliable when it comes to these types of situations in comparison to dogs. We all know how hard it is to motivate a cat to do what we want, but does that mean they are completely untrainable? No, it doesn’t. That is a myth that has surrounded cats for quite a while.

Food is the main way a cat can be motivated. Pulling out a box of treats and shaking it can bring your cat running from anywhere in the house. It’s also a great way of getting your cat to come inside if they’ve been outside exploring. Imagine the possibilities if you utilize real tasty treats for your kitty. Cooked chicken, tuna, or whatever a cat enjoys can motivate them and help with training. Cats also enjoy playing and socializing as rewards. They may be the more difficult domestic animal to tempt into training, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.

cat being fed a cat treat or cat food by hand
Image Credit: Jakub Zak, Shutterstock

Would Smelling Cancer Be Accurate?

Accuracy is another issue when discussing cats smelling cancer. While a cat has a better chance of distinguishing smells than a dog, both animals tend to need time to adjust to scents in their lives. Dogs and cats learn their owner’s scent by smelling it over and over. The same is true with their toys. It’s how dogs are trained to find bombs.

When cancer is inside the body, changes are happening to the cells. Cells are attacked, they die, and so forth. It’s believed that a cat or dog would need to know the person’s scent beforehand to have the ability to determine if something is changing on the inside. Perhaps this is why researchers aren’t in a hurry to use cats as cancer detectors but owners feel their kitties have saved them due to their reaction when something has changed with their health.

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Final Thoughts

If your cat suddenly begins pawing or scratching at a particular part of your body, could it mean something is wrong? There’s no clear answer to that question. It would be up to you to decide just how differently your cat is acting and whether you feel it’s a cause for concern. Yes, cats have the tools to sniff out cancer, but without more research, the power our tiny felines hold will stay in our homes and not in our hospitals.

Featured Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

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