Dogs have long helped out with police work, military duties, and farm jobs, so it should come as no surprise that canines are joining the medical field, too. Learning about the medical conditions dogs can sense just might give you a newfound respect for canine companions everywhere. Seriously, dogs are the best.
How can dogs tell when something might be off with a person's health? It's all about that powerful nose of theirs. In fact, a dog can detect an odor diluted to one to two parts per trillion, according to the Medical Detection Dogs official website. In other words, a dog's sense of smell is so powerful that it's almost impossible for people to completely understand. As Alexandra Horowitz wrote in Inside of a Dog, "We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water: two Olympic-sized pools full." It's a mind-blowing ability.
Trained medical service dogs, as well as the average family pet, have all shown signs of using this magnificent nose to detect health conditions in humans. Some of the findings are backed by research, whereas others are the result of personal experience or observation. But one fact holds true: dogs are completely awesome.
1. Heart Problems
Believe it or not, dogs have even been used to monitory people's heart conditions. In fact, Cardiac Alert dogs are a type of Medical Alert Dog trained to alert drops in blood pressure, according to Anything Pawsable, a service and working dog site. In at least one case, a Cardiac Alert dog warned about an oncoming stroke.
2. Cancer Warnings
Although their abilities are still being studied, it looks like dogs may be able to smell signs of cancer, thanks to the volatile organic compounds that give cancer a unique odor, according to a report in CNN. In fact, a machine that mimics a dog's nose may one day be used for cancer detection purposes.
3. Migraine Headaches
As any migraine sufferer can tell you, these headaches can be debilitatingly painful and sometimes impossible to predict. But the family dog may know when one of these headaches is coming. About one out of four migraine sufferers reported noticing a change in their dog's behavior just prior to a migraine attack, according to a survey in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. If these results are reflective of reality, then migraine sufferers would do well to notice when the family dog starts acting weird.
4. Narcolepsy Episodes
The sleep disorder narcolepsy can result in extreme sleepiness, sudden attacks of sleep, and even loss of muscle control, according to the National Sleep Foundation. This disorder can greatly affect a person's daily life, including the ability to safely use transportation.
But the service dogs who monitor narcolepsy patients can give these people an additional support system. In fact, narcolepsy support dogs can provide people with few minutes' warning of a coming attack, as well as protect the person in the case of muscle control loss, according to Sleep Review. The dogs can even retrieve medication or find help.
To date, there is no concrete evidence that dogs can reliably predict seizures. In fact, recent medical literature does question whether service dogs can effectively recognize and alert for the signs of an oncoming seizure, as noted by the Epilepsy Foundation. More research is needed to fully conclude whether dogs have this ability.
That said, anecdotal evidence suggests seizure alert dogs can benefit their humans in many ways. For instance, one women credits her service dog with the prevention of a dangerous car accident. "He kept pawing at me one day when I was driving,” said dog owner Norberta Vergara in the Rio Rancho Observer. “He was so distracting that I had no choice but to pull over. Then I had a seizure, which could’ve killed me if I had still been on the road. Somehow, he could sense I was about to have one, so he did his best to tell me.” At the very least, these service dogs can provide their human handlers with a tremendous amount of emotional support and reassurance.
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