Content Warning: potentially distressing descriptions of medical symptoms, death anxiety.
Six months ago I had the absolute fright of my life. I awoke abruptly in the middle of the night, extremely dizzy and in need of one of those pesky, middle-of-the-night bathroom trips.
As I stood up I felt all the blood rushing away from my head, leaving me weak and unsteady. This was not uncommon, so I continued with my plans, but I remember feeling like I was struggling a lot more than usual to walk.
I thought my troubles were over once I reached the bathroom, but as I went to sit down I felt a foreign sensation; that I was losing control of my body and that if I didn’t get myself on the floor I was going to be unconscious within seconds.
Terrified, I awkwardly rolled off the toilet, but felt almost no relief. I tried to crawl towards the door (or at least I thought that’s what I was doing), only to realise that my limbs were not actually moving! The world was spinning around me and now I was really starting to panic.
I called out for help, and fortunately my fiancé appeared within seconds. “I’m very sick,” I mumbled, this hilarious understatement being the only thing I could get out of my mouth.
I was alternating between dry-heaving and drifting in and out of consciousness while he called for an ambulance. I could hear him getting frustrated in the background; we would later learn there had been an OVERNIGHT OUTAGE OF BRUSSELS EMERGENCY SERVICES that night (thanks for the trauma Proximus!).
As I felt weaker and weaker I was vaguely aware of a soft tapping sensation on my face. I managed to open my eyes to see our new kitten Adora pawing at my face and pacing back and forth in an agitated manner. As I drifted off yet again I felt an immense sense of guilt. We’d only brought Adora into our home three weeks ago; was she about to watch me die? Could cats be traumatised by this like humans? Would she be home alone all day now while Haydn was at work?
Well…fifteen minutes later I was fine…like nothing happened! I told Haydn he could stop yelling at the disconnected phone line and that I’d go see my doctor in the morning instead. He was hesitant about this decision (fair) but supported me in my desire to just finally pull my pants back up and go back to bed.
After a long conversation and some neurological testing with my doctor, we agreed that I had probably just experienced an abnormal migraine aura. I had been having auras of increasing severity over the past few months so it seemed like a reasonable explanation. The dreaded migraine headache appeared a few days later and I passed it all off as a freak situation never to be repeated.
(Spoiler alert: things are almost NEVER that simple when it comes to chronic illness.)
One thing that had changed though, was that Adora was now following me in and out of the bathroom like it was her job.
Two weeks later I awoke to a similar sensation in the middle of the night. I lay still and prayed it would pass without as much suffering this time if I didn’t move. I started to feel like I was under water, I was disconnected from reality, there was a heavy weight on my body, but at the same time my limbs seemed to be going numb. I started to lose consciousness…but then… “ow!” There was a sharp pain on the side of my face. It was Adora, biting me. I stared at her, unable to move as she sniffed and pawed at me vigorously. I started to drift off again but “ow! Adora! STOP IT!”
Eventually, the episode passed and Adora left me alone.
This re-occurred every two or so weeks until Adora began biting my face before any symptoms had even appeared. Eventually, she started waking me up before I could even feel any changes within my own body. Extremely helpful, as it meant I could go to the bathroom in peace again, without fear of getting caught with my pants down!
This progression made me extremely curious about whether or not people use official service animals to help manage migraines. Most of the information I found was about dogs. Although uncommon, service dogs are sometimes used in the management of migraines. According to the National Headache Institute, some dogs are able to detect oncoming migraines due to their highly acute sense of smell and by recognising subtle cues from their owners.
These dogs may be able to help their humans take medications early enough to prevent a full on attack, or simply reduce the risk of harm by guiding them to a safe place.
US Service Animals also quotes a study in which 60% of non-service dog owners who suffered from migraines stated that their dog naturally alerted them to an oncoming attack without any training – amazing!
I also came across a great YouTube channel called Momming with Migraine. It features Jennifer, a chronic, complex migraine and dysautonomia sufferer. She makes wonderful, informative videos about how her service dog Buddy helps her with migraines and a myriad of other tasks that she has trained him to do. She also has videos on the realities of having a service dog and what the training period is like. A fantastic resource for anyone who is interested!
Unfortunately, information about cats helping with ailments such as migraines was sparse and entirely anecdotal. While there are several websites vaguely stating that cats can “pick up” on the early signs of migraines, I could not really find a reliable source that explains why this is or whether this could be a trainable skill like it is in dogs. If you have any personal knowledge on this topic I would love to hear from you via the contact page.
My episodes of partial paralysis have recently been becoming more frequent and the loss of muscle control and balance has been lasting for longer and longer in between the acute periods, making it harder to engage in day to day activities. These episode are not always followed by a migraine, and my doctor and I are no longer sure if migraine auras are the whole story here.
(We are currently investigating several other possibilities – hopefully the topic of future post.)
I have had to adapt several things in my life to cope with these changes, including the way I spend time with Adora. She has learnt to bring me toys in bed when I’m unwell and to “fetch.” I have also trained her to come when called and to go into her carrier when asked to minimise the energy I need to expend running around after her. We still have just as much fun together, making the most of the good days, and finding ways to accomodate the bad ones.
Regardless of whether my relationship with her is rooted in science, coincidence or a unique bond, I’m extremely grateful for it. It is so comforting to feel that an animal really cares and is on the same wave length as you. Having a tiny kitten snuggle up to you when you have scary symptoms or feel like hell is great, and having an early warning sign that things might be about to go south boosts your confidence and sense of safety, especially when home alone.
A relationship with an animal is also innately non-judgmental. They won’t demand an explanation as to why you’re sick “again”, or what you did “wrong” to provoke a flair in your symptoms. They won’t make fun of you for lying on the floor, not washing your hair or hiding in your room all day with the curtains closed. They just want to be with you for you. Not your productivity, not your step count, not your progress, you.
I guess we humans still have a lot to learn. Regardless of whether or not we struggle with illness, I wonder if we would we be more at peace if we viewed ourselves and our relationships the same way our pets do?
Do you have a pet that provides you with extra TLC when you’re having a tough time? Tell me about them in the comments below! (Cute pictures mandatory)