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Cancer and the Case of the Clairvoyant Cat


A cancer survivor examines some feline facts and fantasies about animals that could sniff out cancer.

There are two things you should know about me before reading further. Firstly, I have been a professional magician for the last 45 years, so I am an "optimistic skeptic" when it comes to separating fact from fiction. As a guy who gets paid to fool people (hopefully in a positive way) I know how easy it is to be deceived. But I am always open to any theories that arise on any subject, at least until I have some evidence in hand to prove them untrue.

And secondly, I am an incurable cat lover with two of my own, so if I can be biased about anything it would be cats.

For a long time now, the internet and supermarket tabloids have been rife with stories of animals — dogs and cats mostly, who are able to detect cancer in their owners with their keen sense of smell, and indicate its presence through their actions.

The circumstantial evidence is both colorful and passionate, with story after story professing the prediction powers of pussy cats.

I admit that I very much want these reports to be true, and as I watch my cats exploring the world through their highly developed olfactory senses, it seems logical that they are creating richly detailed stories in their brains via their noses.

Whenever we bring anything new into our home, our two cats spend a lot of time meticulously sniffing and engaging in what appears to be a very thorough mapping of that items message, where it came from, who touched it and more.

Science seems to be split on the "cat smelling cancer" idea although they have been able to train dogs to detect bladder cancer by smelling human urine. It's important to note that these were animals that were taught to perform these feats and did not necessarily make these discoveries without training and prompting. So, where science is concerned, it's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game with no clear conclusions. Hopefully a detailed study will find its way into a trusted medical journal. After all, there's more than one way to skin a… well, you know the rest.

Googling "Can cats smell cancer?" on the internet brings up about 9,160,000 mixed results, so we're not likely to solve the riddle today. Virtually every story or report I found regarding this issue of talented tabby cats came from cat fancier magazines and pet owner periodicals. There is little in the way of actual controlled studies to settle this debate, although there is solid evidence that dogs and cats greatly enhance the overall disposition of cancer patients as companion animals.

As a man with breast cancer, a decidedly rare disease, I've learned to listen to the subtle messages that I receive from my own body, because there are no clear procedures for treating my form of cancer which accounts for just 1 percent of all breast cancers. Only one in a thousand men will ever be diagnosed with the disease.

So, I keep an eye out for changes that may indicate a return of my cancer, and I admit, I sometimes try to interpret those subtle behaviors of my two barn cats; to read their busy minds and also perhaps just to see just what the cat dragged in to my world of cancer survival.

A 2017 paper published in the journal Applied Animal Behavior Science points out that cats have better "olfactory discrimination" than dogs do. Kristyn Vitale Shreve, who co-authored the paper with Monique Udell, believes that this ability might make cats even better at sniffing out illness and drugs than dogs are.

They concluded that, "Given the importance of olfaction in cat sensory perception, cats could be trained to discriminate between a variety of odors, therefore serving in working roles for detecting specific humans, medical scent detection, bomb sniffing or drug sniffing." But none of this definitely answers the question of cats with enhanced tumor detection attributes.

So, for now, the jury is hung. I can say with certainty though that my cats often spend long moments sniffing my face, my hands and my hair. Often, they will approach me slowly with a distinctly different look in their eyes. We will almost touch noses and for a brief moment there is some unexplainable telepathic-like communication going on. Do they smell my breath to see what I had for lunch? Maybe they're looking deep into my eyes to steal away my thoughts? Or perhaps they're probing my working internal organs to determine my state of health and wellbeing. Sort of a "Cat scan" if you will.

In any case, they seem to be holding some deep secrets that may one day be utilized by cancer patients. We'll need some decent, independent studies to find out the truth however, and then, once and for all, we can finally "let the clairvoyant cat out of the bag."


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