Drug-sniffing dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, dogs who alert their owners to house fires or intruders – there’s no doubt that the powerful canine nose helps keep us safe. On top of the outside threats they protect us from, dogs also use their sniffing power to help detect potential health concerns.
They sense subtle differences in our body chemistry and behavior in order to alert us to diseases like cancer and diabetes, or warn us of an impending crisis like a seizure or a heart attack. They may even be able to tell you what to expect when you’re expecting, before you know you’re expecting!
Doctors and research scientists are beginning to utilize these amazing skills in clinical trials, showing support for this unconventional diagnostic method. Dogs have olfactory senses up to 100,000 times stronger and more accurate than that of human beings. This means that not only can they “smell” cancer, they can do so when the disease is in its earliest stages and may not yet be detected by traditional tests – a major breakthrough, since the success of cancer treatments is heavily affected by speed of diagnosis.
An ongoing project at UC Davis is training dogs to hone their olfactory gifts in order to sniff out certain cancers in amounts as tiny as parts per trillion. The researchers have compared their abilities to locating a single drop of blood in a body of water the size of 3 Olympic swimming pools. The pups in the program are up to 98% accurate at detecting disease in human breath, saliva and urine – even better than certain laboratory equipment.
Although German Shepherds, Labs, Poodles and herding breeds have shown the most potential for this type of sense work, researchers and behaviorists feel that any dog is capable of sensing changes in human health. We have all heard the stories of average house pets suddenly behaving strangely in order to alert their owners that they are on the verge of a stroke or heart attack.
How do they do it? It all comes down to smell. In the case of cancers, dogs detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) given off by malignant tissue. Research dogs are trained to detect these VOCs, while pet dogs simply pick up on something out of the ordinary in their master’s usual smell.
Diabetic pup parents may find that their faithful friends begin acting nervous or strange when their blood sugar is out of whack, or when toxins called ketones are present in the blood, indicating dangerously low sugar/high insulin.
Scientists are not entirely sure what chemical changes dogs are detecting when they alert a human to an impending heart attack, stroke or seizure. The theory that they are sensing changes in electromagnetic waves has been debunked. However, few doubt that our canines can and do sense these conditions somehow.
The chemical changes that occur early on in pregnancy may alert your dog to the upcoming arrival of a new, hairless sibling even before you ever think to take a test. Hormone levels begin to spike very early, especially hCG – since your dog knows your scent as well as his own, there’s no hiding this particular secret from him. Good thing pups can’t talk in or they might spill the beans!
Featured Image via Instagram/Simolena