The Complete Guide To How Dogs Act When Their Owners Are Sick!

The Complete Guide To How Dogs Act When Their Owners Are Sick!

By Mwebe Morgan

Photo by Gustavo Fring from Pexels


Do you know that dogs are masters of empathy? Dogs can sense when their owners are in distress and react accordingly. They will express profound worry and compassion. Because of their incredible sense of smell — and a few other factors — your dog knows when you are sick. Dogs thrive on routine, so even the smallest variation in your routine or behaviour will be noticed. Whether you’re simply moving more slowly than usual or spending all day resting on the sofa, your dog senses that something is amiss since you’re acting differently. They want to make you feel better and will do whatever they can to make you happy.

Over 69 million households in the United States owned at least one dog according to a 2021/22 pet owners survey, making them the most widely owned type of pet across the U.S. at this time. An average household has an average number of 1.6 dogs.

This article talks about the ways in which dogs show affection to their owners during sickness and how they give them comfort during such times.

Source: Number of pet-owning households in the United States in 2021/22 in millions

How do dogs act when you are sick? Can they sense when something is wrong with their owner?

Yes, your dog can detect if you’re unwell for a variety of reasons, and they’ll let you know by displaying specific behaviours in your presence. For openers, your dog will appear more affectionate and as if they adore you more than usual. If you are ill and your dog will continually attempt to lay on the bed or sofa with you. They will want to put their head in your lap, or simply be near to you, they are trying to comfort you and let you know they are there for you.

Your dog may also be calmer in your presence, less demanding of walks and playtime, and they may even pull less or be less excited on their walk if they know you are not feeling well. This is because they are aware that you are tired and that your energy level is significantly lower than usual.

They detect your hints and alter their behaviour accordingly. When you’re unwell, your dog wants to help you feel better, soothe you, and reduce your stress levels, and that’s how they try to do it.

How do dogs react when they smell illness?

The dog’s body language

If your dog detects that you are ill, you may see the following signs:

  • It will wag its tail
  • It will stay closer to you, always gazing into your eyes to detect changes within you
  • It will want to lick your face

Other Indications

Here are some more symptoms your dog may exhibit if it suspects you are ill:

  • Are less active and demanding
  • Keeping a tight eye on you
  • The dog will spend a lot of time lying down and snuggling with you
  • Speak in a calming voice-Reassure him or her that you will be fine.

The Evolution of a Dog Sensing its owner and the surrounding environment

Even when dogs were wild and undomesticated, their sense of smell was a powerful and extraordinary trait. Dogs rely on their sense of smell for a variety of tasks, including looking for food and sniffing out their favourite toys! When you are sick, it will bring you a toy to play with it.

Photo by Trace Hudson from Pexels

Fun Fact

Alexandra Horowitz, a research scientist, writes in her book “Nose of a Dog” that “much of what the dog sees and knows comes via his nose.” A dog’s nose contains over 125 million to 300 million smell glands, depending on the breed, whereas a human’s nose has approximately five million scent glands. That implies a dog’s sense of smell is 1,000 to 100,000 times more acute than that of a person.

According to her research, dogs are capable of detecting minute remnants of scents caused by various ailments.

When a person becomes ill, their body chemistry changes and a dog’s sensitive snout may be able to detect these small changes, alerting them to the fact that we are ill. Dogs can be trained to detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the human body, assisting in the early diagnosis of diseases such as cancer.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

When we are ill, our happiness receptors and neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin decrease. Dogs can detect these subtle changes as well, and they may even detect illness before you do! Your dog will pick up on your lack of energy as well. They can detect your emotions and detect facial indications that indicate you are not yourself or unwell.

Whether you have a little cold or flu or have been diagnosed with a major illness, your dog always seems to know and lavishes you with additional love and devotion. But how do they know you’re unwell and in need of special care? Is it your actions that tip them off, or something else entirely?

How do dogs act when they smell their cancerous owners?

Ashley Stenzel, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow, confirms that dogs have the capacity to detect melanoma, a potentially fatal skin disease. This according to her, has been formally researched and proven at Roswell Park. In case studies, dogs sniffed, licked, and nibbled at melanoma lesions on their owners’ skin, even through clothing, causing the owners to recognize the malignant locations and seek therapy from physicians, Dr. Stenzel affirms further. “Given that melanoma is a disease that manifests as lesions on the skin,” She explains, “it would seem obvious for dogs to be able to identify a lesion.” “However, canine olfactory detection has also been explored in other cancer cases.”

Similarly, dogs detect our illness in a variety of ways. Some of these approaches have resulted in specialised service dogs that considerably enhance the lives of individuals suffering from chronic diseases (whether physical or emotional). Some of these approaches are opening the way for new technologies to diagnose cancer more quickly and effectively than present technology.

More so, in sniffing the breath of patients, dogs have discovered breast cancer and lung cancer in several tests. The canines in these investigations are considered to have detected biochemical changes in the exhalation of patients with diagnosed cancer vs subjects with no known disease.

Can dogs be trained to detect cancer?

Possibly, but not exactly. The University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School’s Working Dog Center and Medical Detection Dogs in the United Kingdom are two groups that are looking into this. Dogs have detected the following in a variety of experiments:

  • Ovarian tumours can be detected by smelling patient tumours and blood samples
  • Bladder cancer and prostate cancer can be detected by smelling patients’ urine
  • Breast cancer and lung cancer can be detected by smelling patients’ breath. The canines in these investigations are considered to have detected biochemical changes in the exhalation of patients with diagnosed cancer vs subjects with no known disease
  • Cervical cancer can be detected by smelling patient biopsy samples
  • Colorectal cancer can be detected by smelling patients’ exhaled breath and stool samples

Will Doctors Use Dogs to Aid in Cancer Detection Anytime Soon?

Most likely not. “While the notion of using dogs to detect cancer is appealing since it is non-invasive, but it is neither yet accurate enough, nor practicable, unless much more study and training is done,” says Dr Ashley Stenzel.

“For one thing, the dogs can’t tell us exactly what they’re smelling,” explains Kirsten Moysich, PhD, MS, Roswell Park’s Distinguished Professor of Oncology and Epidemiology. “Cancer induces some cellular instability. There is mounting evidence that high levels of a signature of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), often known as odorants, are linked to disease progression and the build-up of cell debris and decaying dead tissue.”

What can you do to soothe your anxious dog?

Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

Despite the owner being sick, you have to soothe your dog by reducing its anxiety. Do the following:

  • Keep your dog comfortable by providing a soft bed or pet couch with a blanket to lie on.
  • Dogs love massages, touch your dog or rub him or her around the muzzle, neck, chest, and caress its undercarriage.
  • Give his or her favourite food. Always provide a balanced diet to keep it healthy.
  • Give clean water. This will keep him or her hydrated.


When you are sick, our dogs can detect your distress and sadness. Dogs are experts of empathy and can read your emotions. When you’re unwell, it’s not only your health that’s in jeopardy but also the wellbeing of your dog. He will be concerned about your well-being as well. As a result, he will demonstrate deep concern and sympathy. Treat him with compassion if you want to know that he cares about you. He will be the first line of defence when you are unwell.

Mwebe Morgan is a content producer, writer, editor, and proofreader. He specialises in academic, technical, and business writing. Mostly, he lives with his two dogs, Simba and Leo, and a pet cat called Primo.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mwebe Morgan

Mwebe Morgan

Morgan is a content writer, editor, proofreader, and poet. He also specialises in technical, business, and academic writing. He loves pets and graphics.