Some anecdotal evidence and a sprinkling of scientific studies suggest that dogs can detect seizures and cancers (like skin melanoma and prostate cancer). Though the research is still in its infancy, preliminary results have already provided insight on developing new medical technologies.
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 or her owner helps in detecting subtle scent and behavioral changes before a seizure. 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 UK reported in the January 1999 and January 2001 issues of Seizure on dogs they had trained that could detect seizures 15–45 minutes prior to the episode’s beginning. In addition, the researchers found that the people using these 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 trained seizure alert dogs can alert help, help prevent injury and watch over someone when they are having a seizure. However, the Epilepsy Foundation cautions people against rushing into spending thousands of dollars for a dog said to have skills of prior seizure detection, at least until the research supports a specific training regimen.
There has also been anecdotal evidence of dogs being able to sniff out cancer and warn their owners. A brief report in a 1989 issue of the 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 similar 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.
The Future of Dogs as Doctors
Dogs may never be used in the physician’s office. However, studying how animals can detect disease conditions 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.