Can Dogs Help Detect Disease in Humans?

dog disease

Hollywood has never been shy about using the dog “aaaw” factor to get bums on seats at the movie theaters. In fact, man’s best friend has helped line the pockets of many production companies through canine classics such as Turner and Hooch, K-9, Beethoven, Marley and Me, and even that clever little fella from The Artist. We’ve all heard stories in the media of the bullet-taking, crime-fighting mutts that inspire the movies – only recently, a French woman was stopped from committing suicide by her German Shepherd, while a mongrel in Poland saved the life of a three-year-old girl by wrapping itself around the child overnight in sub-zero temperatures. But can our four-legged friends actually save our lives in ways that don’t require them to put their bodies on the line?

Charities like Medical Detection Dogs believe that the answer is an emphatic “yes,” having pioneered the training of dogs to sniff out cancer patients for several years. With a nose up to 100,000 times more sensitive than our own, the detection of an aroma produced by the chemical reactions in cancerous cells is believed to be possible for these specially-trained hounds. One astounding story which appears to prove this theory came from a collie-cross called Max, who raised the suspicion of his owner by repeatedly sniffing her breath and nudging her right breast until the pensioner decided to seek medical advice and discovered she was suffering from the disease.

With tests in Germany also showing a 71% success rate on the breath of those suffering from lung cancer, this is clearly more than a coincidence. But beyond aiding the blind, police, drugs squads and mountain rescue teams, is there really a place for dogs in hospitals, clinics and retirement homes? Well, it seems unlikely. Although the animals are clearly effective in picking up the scent of these cancer cell chemicals, it is more probable that scientists will isolate and identify the smell in question before developing an “electronic nose” as the early warning system of preference. Although stories like Max’s are still fairly rare – and dogs trained to detect cancer, just as scarce – the fact that our faithful friends have directed humans to the presence of this odor could be hugely significant in helping doctors to catch the disease earlier. And as an additional benefit, the possibility of testing through breathing apparatus or urine samples will prove cheaper and less invasive than the painful techniques utilized in removing tissue samples for biopsy.

But it’s not just cancer that dogs can help with. Precedents have already been set for dogs trained to detect low blood sugar amongst diabetics, sense the onset of sleep paralysis for narcoleptics and warn against the onset of allergic reactions. For many years now, dogs have been trained to warn owners of impending seizures through whining, pawing or distressed barking. In the US, there are 2.3 million sufferers of epileptic seizures and programs have been put in place to partner epileptics with dogs capable of pressing a panic button to call for assistance when faced with an owner’s episode.

So next time you walk past a cute canine on the street and their ears prick up, just be aware that they may sense more about the processes going on in your body than you do. Their status as “man’s best friend” may well be even more well-deserved than you might have realized.

Guest Blogger Michael Palmer is a freelance writer based in Oxford, writing on behalf of MORE TH>N pet insurance, which offers pet lovers the reassurance they need to care for their pet. These are his own thoughts and do not represent the views of MORE TH>N or A Letter to My Dog.


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