• Animals and Your Health: Dogs as Disease Detectors

    IMAGE There is no question that dogs can provide companionship, protection, and other services. But could there be another use for our canine friends? Some anecdotal evidence and a sprinkling of scientific studies suggest that dogs can detect seizures and cancers (like skin melanoma and prostate cancer ). Though a lot of research is still needed, early results have provided insight on developing new medical technologies.

    Detecting Seizures

    Though many anecdotal stories suggest dogs can alert their owners before a seizure , there has been little research on how dogs might detect seizures before they happen. Some theorize that the dogs may smell a chemical or other scent that is released just prior to a seizure. Others believe the dog’s attachment to his owner helps in detecting subtle scent and behavioral changes. Only a very small percentage of these service dogs are currently able to reliably warn their owners before a seizure. Some researchers have studied whether these skills could be taught.
    Researchers in the United Kingdom found that the people using specially trained dogs actually reported fewer seizures. Though these results are promising, in most cases, it still seems that this skill is inherent in a dog’s personality, rather than something that can be taught. Future research may reveal what these dogs are detecting and how this information can be applied in the hospital setting.
    There is no doubt that these dogs can alert help, help prevent injury, and watch over someone when they are having a seizure. However, the Epilepsy Foundation urges people to wait until research supports a specific training regimen for seizure predicting dogs.

    Detecting Cancer

    There has also been anecdotal evidence of dogs being able to sniff out cancer and warn their owners. A brief report in the journal Lancet describes how one dog discovered a cancerous skin tumor on her owner’s leg. Researchers have been able to teach bomb-sniffing dogs how to detect cancer using training techniques. Other research supports the theory that dogs have the ability to smell cancer. But the real promise may be in learning how dogs can do this and possibly developing medical technology to do the same.

    Looking Toward the Future

    Dogs may never be used in the doctor's office. However, studying how animals can detect diseases in humans could lead to future advancements in medicine and medical technology. For instance, by learning about the ways dogs “smell” a seizure or cancer cells, we can develop technologies to detect those same molecules. Medical “sniffing machines” have already been developed and are providing insight into the smells of disease for disease detection.

    RESOURCES

    The Epilepsy Foundation http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/

    The National Cancer Institute http://www.nci.nih.gov/

    CANADIAN RESOURCES

    Epilepsy Canada http://www.epilepsy.ca/

    Epilepsy Ontario http://www.epilepsyontario.org/

    References

    Brown SW, Strong V. The use of seizure-alert dogs. Seizure . 2001;10:39-41

    Seizure dogs. The Epilepsy Foundation website. Available at: http://www.epilepsyfoundation.org/livingwithepilepsy/healthandwellness/Seizure-Dogs.cfm . Accessed June 18, 2012.

    Strong V, Brown SW, Walker R. Seizure-alert dogs—fact or fiction? Seizure . 1999;8:62-65.

    Williams H, Pembroke A. Sniffer dogs in the melanoma clinic? Lancet . 1989;1(8640):734.

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