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Can Rosie the Cat 'smell' her owner's irregular heartbeat?

TAMPA

There was little indication of super powers at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay three years ago when June and John Rogers first saw her.

The mostly white calico stretched her legs onto the glass window of the cat playroom to greet them.

The couple, in their 60s, signed papers, took her home and the cat deftly won a place in the family. Now, June and John Rogers are convinced that "Nosy Rosie" has returned their adoration by possibly saving June's life.

Earlier this month, they say, the 4-year-old feline warned that June's heart was beating irregularly.

How?

Stubbornly standoffish, Rosie began cuddling up to June Rogers — something that had never happened before, ever.

To some the idea may seem preposterous, but to June and John Rogers it was the equivalent of Lassie barking for help.

They suspect Rosie literally smelled something wrong, and researchers say they may be right.

"There are reports of dogs detecting people with seizures coming on. It's certainly possible that there may be some sort of odor associated with irregular heartbeat that a cat may be able to detect," said Gary Beauchamp, director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Beauchamp said he has heard many such stories of animals alerting their owners to illnesses, but knows of no scientific studies either to support or to refute Rosie's ability to detect a scent. Researchers at his center have done experiments with mice detecting diseases in humans.

Rogers, 68, has atrial fibrillation, a disorder where a faulty electrical signal sometimes triggers her heart to beat fast and sporadically, increasing the risk of a stroke and heart failure. She doesn't always feel the tell-tale flutter in her chest. But it seems that Rosie can tell.

The first warning occurred two years ago.

An independent cat, Rosie came with a reputation for being destructive. She had been a stray when someone took her to the humane society. Once adopted, she was returned after tearing up things. Then came the Rogers family. As she entered their home the first time, she rolled around on her back. Her destructive streak was gone. They soon learned that she loves to fetch balls and spy on the outside world from a windowsill. She squeezes into boxes and pounces on tissue paper. She also enjoys a good scratch.

But, unlike many cats, she does not cuddle, lay against, or sit on humans.

"Aloof — that's a good word for her," Rogers said. "She loves my husband. (He shares his fresh salmon with her.) She tolerates me."

So Rogers thought it quite odd when Rosie lay against her for the first time, after two years with the family. It was December 2010, and Rogers had come home from her job admitting trauma patients at Tampa General Hospital not feeling well.

As she lay with Rosie glued to her, Rogers soon felt her heart start to race in a familiar way. She had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation in 2002 and been hospitalized seven times with complications. Doctors had prescribed a variety of medications, each of them working for a while but eventually becoming ineffective.

This time, she told nurses and doctors at TGH, Rosie must have known.

Rogers returned home two days later with a new medication. And Rosie returned to her old reserved ways.

Then on the night of June 10, Rosie came to Rogers' side again. She'd thought she had insomnia, but as hours passed and Rosie stayed against her, she remembered the first time.

"I knew when she did that something was not quite right," Rogers said.

At 4 a.m. June 11, Rogers decided to take her pulse. She noted an irregular beat. The next morning, she went to the Urgent Care Center on Gandy Boulevard.

"I know you will think this is weird," she said, "but I have this cat ..."

The doctor smiled and said he was not surprised, Rogers said. Her heart rate was normal, but to be safe, he gave her an EKG. Her results were irregular.

Dr. Michael MacFarland, an emergency room physician, admitted her into TGH.

He found her story about Rosie's warning fascinating. He has heard of service dogs detecting seizures and other dogs that smell cancer.

But whether there's a scent to an irregular heartbeat is a mystery, he said.

The fact that Rogers hasn't had a heart problem for that length of time, he said, and to then have the cat act unusual is "definitely interesting."

Untreated, he said, she could have a stroke.

Rogers went home after a few days, on a new medication. She said the nurses believed her story because they've heard it before. "Most people who have animals believe it."

Elisabeth Parker can be reached at eparker@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3431.

Can Rosie the Cat 'smell' her owner's irregular heartbeat? 06/21/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 21, 2012 4:30am]
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