Dogs’ noses have long been put to use for jobs like bomb sniffing or search and rescue. In recent years, dogs have also shown an impressive ability to sniff out medical conditions. In many cases, disease-sniffing dogs are even able to detect a disease or an oncoming medical crisis before the medical monitoring devices have registered a problem. In honor of International Assistance Dog Week, here are some of the most fascinating ways dogs are helping patients today (and in the future).

Detect their owners’ impending diabetes or allergies crisis

Diabetes is a disease in which the body is unable to properly process sugars and starches. Diabetic alert dogs (DADs) are scent-trained to recognize bodily signals for both low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) and high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). A diabetic alert dog will alert its owner, so that he or she can take steps to fix his or her blood sugar level before it becomes dangerous.

Diabetic alert dogs are relatively well-known, but another dog has recently been trained to help its owner manage the symptoms of a very rare disease. Kaelyn “KK” Krawczyk has a condition called mastocytosis that can cause severe, life-threatening allergic reactions to things like heat, medications, or exercise. Even a blanket that gets too warm could trigger one of KK’s allergic reactions.

Now KK has found JJ, a terrier who’s been trained to detect chemical signals of an impending allergic reaction. When JJ recognizes that an allergic reaction is going to occur, he alerts the family and brings KK her medical kit. JJ is even more sensitive to KK’s bodily reactions than hospital monitoring equipment. During a recent surgery, JJ was allowed into the operating room and signaled that KK was having a reaction.  It wasn’t until four minutes later that the monitoring equipment began to show the reaction. Because of JJ’s extreme sensitivity to KK’s condition, KK is able to go to school like any other child.

Alert their owners of an oncoming seizure

Dogs like JJ or diabetic alert dogs are scent-trained to chemical reactions in the body. They make it possible for people with sometimes-unpredictable conditions to live normal lives. Some conditions, though, don’t allow a dog to learn how to detect it this way. For example, assistive seizure dogs aren’t trained to alert their owners to a coming seizure. Rather, assistive seizure dogs might learn to shield their seizing owners, get help, or simply stay close enough to provide comfort after a seizure.

It’s unclear how dogs are able to detect an oncoming seizure. Current theories include subtle changes in body language or odor, but no one is sure. Because it’s not clear exactly how dogs do this, it’s not possible to train them to recognize and alert their owners about a seizure. As stated in Alert, the National Service Dog Newsletter:

“Lacking scientific proof, it appears that a dog’s perception of oncoming seizures is not a behavior that can be “trained” in the traditional sense; rather, it can only be identified and encouraged.”

The difficulty in this is that a dog cannot be taught a specific alerting behavior, such as barking or sitting. Rather, the owner must be observant enough to realize what a specific behavior means. For example, one dog might bring all its toys over to its owner prior to a seizure, while another dog might whine and pace. However, if the owner can recognize that the dog is attempting to alert him or her, the behavior can be encouraged.

A seizure can have devastating effects. If a person falls from a standing position, he or she might get by with just a few bruises. However, if the seizure occurs while going down a flight of stairs or driving a car, the results can be catastrophic. A dog that can forewarn its owner about an oncoming seizure can, quite literally, save lives.

Screen for diseases

Recent studies have shown that dogs are able to quickly and accurately diagnose people with an infection. A beagle named Cliff was trained to detect the bacteria Clostridium difficile. The symptoms of this bacteria can range from mild diarrhea to life-threatening bowel inflammation. Early treatment is vital, but traditional diagnoses are sometimes slow, potentially taking as long as a week. Unfortunately, it’s relatively common in hospitals and care homes.

Cliff the beagle was taught to identify C. difficile both in patients and in stool samples. In a formal, controlled test, Cliff was mistaken only three times out of 100. In another test, Cliff made his way through an entire hospital ward. In just ten minutes, he correctly identified 25 out of the 30 infected patients and 265 out of 270 uninfected patients.

Dogs are also being tested as a way of detecting cancers early. So far, researchers have trained dogs to detect lung, breast, and bladder cancers. This is sometimes done by using samples, such as urine. In fact, at a working dog conference, one dog alerted its handler to a particular urine sample. The sample was a control from a supposedly healthy woman, but after being checked out, it was found that she had bladder cancer. The disease-sniffing dog had discovered it earlier than anyone else.

In another study, dogs were taught to detect breast and lung cancer by sniffing breath samples. In this study, the dogs were 99% accurate identifying those with and without lung cancer. They were 88% correct at identifying people with breast cancer and 98% correct at identifying those without breast cancer. In fact, one of the women the dogs identified as having breast cancer was in remission. Eighteen months after being positively identified as having breast cancer, traditional medical diagnostic tools recognized that her cancer had come back.

So far, cancer and infection detection dogs aren’t being used regularly. More studies are being conducted to explore their abilities and reliability, but perhaps some day dogs will patrol the halls at doctors’ offices and hospitals.

Do you think disease-sniffing dogs should be used as a common diagnostic tool?

Image by swong95765 via Flickr


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