Some people think cats are selfish creatures, so when our columnist suffers a nasty cold, it tests the characters of her pets, Target and Guido.

Guido is sitting in the sun, smiling happily after stuffing his face with breakfast. Target is in bed, having a long lie-in. In other words, they are enjoying a life of leisure and luxury that we humans can only aspire to.

When you’re a cat lover, seeing your pets happy makes you happy. But there are always a certain number of people who delight in telling us that our pets have no feelings. “All they see is a food bowl,” they’ll say with an oh-so-superior smirk. “Cats are selfish.”

Normally, I shrug it off. I could answer that when the same argument is applied to the workplace, the resulting company loyalty is considered a good thing. Or that I hear many parents tell their kids to be grateful for the things they receive from their family. If looking down on a cat lover makes someone happy, why take that away from them? It’s such a little thing. But it does nark me sometimes.

However, during this last festive season I got horribly sick – and now I have a good, evidence-based response.

This is how it happened. got a cold about a week before Christmas. It was nothing serious, just one of those pounding headaches that comes from stuffed up sinuses. I thought it would go away so I ignored it. Big mistake. After a day or so, I couldn’t stand up without falling over.

I decided I’d treat it by sweating it out. So I picked up my pillow and settled down for the night in the spare bedroom, pulling the comforter over me and not switching on the fan.

Ten minutes later, I was horribly sticky. The humidity of the air and the heat of the blanket created an unbelievable sweat bath.

From what I’ve read, Native American tribes used to create small huts and purposefully fill them up with hot steamy air as part of their purification ceremonies. Apparently, they sat and sweated while saying and singing prayers, afterwards emerging as better people.

I just lay and sweated and I wasn’t feeling very much better at all. I was, in fact, feeling thoroughly miserable.

Then I felt a bump on the bed. When I peeked out from the covers, Target was sitting an inch away from my nose. He sniffed me all over, purring and was dead curious. If he could speak our language, he’d be saying, “I went to bed and you weren’t there! What’cha doing?”

I petted him and explained what I was up to. Our senior cat has his own pillow in our bed; it lies just above mine. I thought he’d probably sit with me for a second and then go off to his usual snooze spot but Target stomped all over my pillow, looking for a second pillow. As there wasn’t one, he curled up next to me and purred himself to sleep.

It touched me because Target is quite picky about his sleeping spots. If the fan doesn’t reach it, he doesn’t want to be there. So to sleep with me in a non-cool bed when he could very easily have gone to the other room and enjoyed a cool expanse of bedding heaven was a gesture of solidarity.

I was just thinking how sweet my little fuzzy was when there was another thump on the bed. This time, it was Guido coming to see what was going on.

Our junior cat came straight up, sniffed Target and then sniffed me. At that point, his ears went back: The junior cat was appalled. There’s plenty of evidence that animals can scent illness but I knew Guido wasn’t worried about my cold. He was registering that I was a sweaty object, quite unfit for a nice clean cat to cuddle up to.

Guido sat down, examined me closely and then licked my nose. Cats have very sharp tongues so it’s a creepy feeling but I took it in the spirit it was meant. I told him I knew I smelled bad and that I’d be bathing in the morning.

Target lifted his head, chirruped a little and then went back to sleep. Guido then sniffed me again, and to my amazement, he curled up against me and went to sleep, too.

I’ve no idea if cats talk to each other and if that chirp was a message. However, that night and the night after, both cats stayed with me. We were sandwiched together, hot and sticky, but I slept like a log because I was surrounded by purrs.

Target and I are very close, so having him being sweet to me was lovely but not totally surprising. Guido and I are mates but because Target is jealous, the junior cat spends more time with the other human in the house.

When I was ill, though, Guido stepped up and fussed over me. What’s more, Guido is a morning cat who bounces out of bed just before five. His routine is to go for a walk, meow at the birds, and then come home for a good wash and a hearty breakfast.

Those two days I was ill, Guido got up as usual, ordered the healthy human in the other room to let him out, and then came back half an hour later, with damp paws, to see how I was. Isn’t that sweet? He actually came to see me before having a wash or eating his breakfast!

So the next time someone sneers about cats being selfish, I’ll know what to say. Real love is being tramped by a wet-pawed kitty.

NEXT PAGE: Can pets detect sickness by scent? 

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Can pets detect sickness by scent? 

There are a raft of articles in the press about animals saving their human’s life by alerting them to danger, but how real are those reports?

At the moment, there are very few research projects considering this issue but, from what there is, it looks like at least some animals have a gift for spotting illness. Studies typically use one to three dogs, possibly because it’s simpler to train a dog than a cat, and they tend to be small, too.

The study that got tonnes of press was conducted by Japanese scientists in 2010. This group tested a Labrador retriever’s abilities for sniffing out cancer in a random sample test environment. The Lab was presented with stool and breath samples from patients known to have colorectal cancer.

The dog was accurate in correctly identifying whether or not cancer was present in 91% of breath samples and 97% of stool samples. The dog was accurate even in samples taken from patients in the early stages of cancer, and he was not confused by samples taken from patients who smoked or who had benign colorectal disease or inflammatory disease.

In other studies, dogs were able to detect breast cancer and lung cancer using exhaled breath to 88% and 99% accuracy, while being able to detect ovarian cancer, prostate cancer and bladder cancer as well, although the significance levels varied wildly according to the medium.

The conclusion is that malignant tissues release chemicals and that pets can recognise this.

Pets are also being used to sniff out low blood sugar and seizures, although how this is done is still quite a mystery. If you’re curious to read more about the science, these two papers paper available freely online – Canine scent detection of human cancers: A review of methods and accuracy and
Domestic dogs and human health: An overview
– offer great summaries and suggestions for further reading.