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Pet Illness Detectives

on March 25, 2009
Posted in Fun

It has long been known that our pets provide us with lots of love and companionship. But did you know that some pets can also provide us with illness detecting services too?

Dogs that have an acute sense of smell and awareness have been known to detect lung, breast and skin cancer in patients before a proper medical diagnosis has been made.

Support Dogs is a UK based charitable organization that has provided over 45 seizure alert dogs to epileptics.

One such person was Tony Brown-Griffin. Before obtaining her first seizure alert dog, Tony was suffering from at least 12 major seizures a week, not to mention the numerous minor ones. Due to all of this Tony was literally housebound and lonely. Today is she a thriving independent mother of two children and all because of her Golden Retriever, Ajay.

About 40 minutes before Tony experiences a major seizure, Ajay starts to lick her left hand. This allows Tony enough time to get herself out of harm’s way.

“It’s a major stress reduction. I don’t have to worry about epilepsy at all unless my dog alerts me. Before I was thinking ‘Do I have time to cross the road, will I have a seizure?'”

However, neither Tony nor her husband can understand how Ajay can pick up on any warning signs, as even the slightest of changes in Tony’s behavior before she experiences a seizure are hardly noticeable to them.

“He doesn’t get a crystal ball and headscarf and say ‘I predict you will have one three weeks on Tuesday’ but whether it’s a change in blood pressure or body temperature or whether I sweat or smell differently, or a combination of things. In the early days it was very difficult to go with the dog because I would feel so well but he was 100% accurate, 100% of the time,” explains Tony.

Another life-saving dog, Riker, a 9-year-old Australian Shepherd from California, kept poking persistently at his owner’s father’s chest. Since Riker didn’t want to stop, a closer examination was done. Riker’s owner found a lump on her father’s chest. The doctor later explained that it was a melanoma that had spread beneath her father’s skin.

Pamela Plante’s Yorkshire Terrier, Morgan, would not stop jumping on leg one morning. Eventually, Pamela turned up her trousers and looked at her leg in a mirror. Her leg was completely red right up to the knee. She was admitted to the hospital for sepsis and spent a week there recovering.

But dog’s aren’t the only pet illness detectives!

At the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island, the resident cat, Oscar, has apparently predicted the deaths of 25 residents.

What is unusual about Oscar is that he is not really friendly to any of the nursing home patients ever. That is, until he predicts their death by cozying up with them. The nursing home staff will then warn the patient’s family that the patient does not have much more time left to live.

Another cat, Tuffy, from South Dakota has been credited for keeping Ardis Matson’s mother alive and able to live on her own for years.

“My mother was elderly and had insulin-dependent diabetes,” Matson says. “Often, her blood sugar would go dangerously low during the night and if left unchecked it could have caused her to go into a coma and die. Tuffy always slept with her, and when her blood sugar started slipping really low during the night, he would nudge her and walk across her body and keep aggravating her until she would get up and take glucose to make her blood sugar levels rise. When she was in control again, Tuffy would go back to sleep.”

Veterinarian Margie Scherk, who is also the president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners, believes that, in the case of Oscar, he is probably picking up on a variety of clues that most people are just too busy to notice or don’t have the sensory capacity to detect them.

“Cats live in a world of smells; their olfactory sense is a lot more acute than that of a human,” Scherk says. “People who are dying, as well as those who aren’t eating, emit ketotic odors, which might be one clue that cats like Oscar detect. There could easily be other odors that a dying individual produces that our noses are unable to note.”

It seems that not only are cats and dogs able to pick up on certain odors, they also seem to be able to understand when there are health issues that their owners need to know about.

Timothy E. Holy, an assistant professor of anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University in St. Louis explains it this way: “There is reason to believe that some odors do have an ‘intrinsic’ value to the animal, that evolution has led to the development of neural pathways that specialize in detecting and processing relevant categories of smell. Experience, too, plays a big role. You can train a dog to react in particular ways to relatively arbitrary smells.”

Since dogs evolved from wolves, it has been theorized that dogs have such an aptitude because their wolf ancestors also had such an ability to tell when one of their pack members was ill.

Keep this mind the next time your dog or cat is desperately trying to obtain your attention; It could save your life!

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Read also: How NOT to Lose your Fingers…whilst Saving your Dog’s Life

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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