With super-attuned senses that rival fancy medical equipment, our furry pals might be our doctors’ best friends, too.
Since ancient times, canine sidekicks have alerted us to predators. Now researchers are finding that they can also sound the alarm on attacks within our bodies. Dogs’ noses are said to be 1,000 times more sensitive than ours, and pooches can be trained to respond to the signature scents of human health conditions. “They are phenomenally talented,” says Cindy Otto, DVM, executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. Here’s how they’re lending a paw.
They help keep seizure patients safe
Response dogs can offer support and companionship to people who suffer from recurring or disabling epileptic seizures. There isn’t conclusive evidence to back some patients’ claim that dogs are able to predict seizures. But they can be trained to bark when a child has a seizure to alert family members, or to position themselves to break a fall when an episode starts.
Pups can sniff out cancer
In a 2012 study, German scientists found that dogs can distinguish volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, specific to the breath samples of lung cancer patients. Dogs could also make a huge difference in the detection of ovarian cancer, says Dr. Otto, which is often diagnosed too late for even aggressive treatment to work. Researchers at Dr. Otto’s center discovered that canines can ID a single drop of blood from an ovarian cancer patient in about three seconds. Her team is now working with nanotechnologists at the University of Pennsylvania to create an electronic “nose” that doctors everywhere could use. “If we can develop something automated,” she says, “we could screen hundreds of thousands of women.”
They're on guard for diabetics
When a diabetic’s blood glucose level gets too high or too low, a diabetes alert dog smells the difference in VOCs in the person’s saliva and can provide a valuable early warning. “Alert dogs really change the quality of life for people who have them,” says Dr. Otto. “These people don’t test their blood less frequently—they actually end up testing their blood more frequently—but life is so much more under their control.”