How Dogs Could Change The Way We Approach Healthcare


Your next health check could come from an unexpected source. Imagine if you were alerted to a health scare by a professionally trained dog, licking you, barking, or purposefully wandering off to seek assistance from a medical professional.

The categories which pups and the astute canines which they become can be explained as bio detection dogs and medical assistance dogs. These dogs are trained to identify the slight changes in bodily scent which pre-empt the onset of serious illnesses and health conditions.

Photo by James Barker on Unsplash

How Does A Dog Become Skilled At Sniffing Out Health Conditions?

Dogs have over 300 million olfactory receptors. These proteins give them the amazingly accurate senses of smell which allow them to detect one part per trillion in any odour and identify changes in those odours which the human nose simply cannot distinguish, and then react to the scents so quickly, that the person they assist can remedy the situation before their condition seriously deteriorates.

These dogs must undergo years of rigorous training before they are able to accurately detect diseases. Firstly, these dogs must be able to react calmly and collectedly to the noises which everyday life generates. Nobody needs their medical alert assistance dog to run away if a driver loudly parps their car horn in the street, or if a bus pulls into a stop. More importantly, these dogs must be able to sit quietly for long periods, so that they are able to accompany children to their lessons in school, without disrupting whole classes by barking at teachers or chewing revision notes.

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

After this basic training has been completed, the dogs must hone their olfactory receptors to make the fine distinctions between scents which can save lives. Often the individual who the dog will assist is chosen before this stage of training begins. They will then send samples of their saliva, to the medical centre where these brilliant pets are trained, so that the dogs can understand that individual’s typical scent and variations from it. The VOCs (volatile organic compounds) released by the tissue in our body act as sign-posts for serious health conditions. Medical detection dogs are trained to look for changes in these VOCs.

Which Conditions Can These Dogs Identify?

The research in this field is far from complete. However, dogs have already assisted in the detection of cancers, and the management of conditions such as diabetes. There is also research currently being undertaken at the University of Manchester to see if dogs can assist in the detection of Parkinson’s disease.

Bio detection dogs

These dogs are currently participating in NHS trials to offer a faster diagnosis for urological and breast cancers.

Almost everyone you meet is aware of the red flag symptoms of major cancers, such as finding a lump on your breast, or blood in your urine. However, even those who vigilantly report any of these symptoms to their GP on first suffering from them, can find that their cancer has spread rapidly and put their life at serious risk. By applying these dogs unique sense of smell to cancer research, doctors can identify mutations in tissue far more quickly, and begin to treat tumours when they are at their smallest, before they spread.

NHS permission for the trials was granted after Milton Keynes University Hospital’s research in 2015 showed that dogs were 93% successful in identifying prostate tumours from smelling urine. While the trials are still ongoing, it is hoped that these dogs will represent ground-breaking progress in cancer research and make a real difference to the lives of the patients they help. Quoted in The Guardian Iqbal Anjum, a consultant urologist at the hospital, called the role which could be played by dogs in the future of cancer diagnosis ‘an extremely exciting prospect.

Photo credit: www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk

Medical Alert Assistance Dogs

These dogs assist those who are suffering from chronic medical conditions to manage their illnesses and make their lives as easy and as enjoyable as possible.

From hormonal issues, to blood sugar fluctuations caused by diabetes, to blackouts caused by cardiac conditions, these dogs use their sense of smell to alert those with whom they work of impending medical events and crises, so that they can either take necessary medications, or move to a place of safety, before the person they are assisting finds their wellbeing endangered by attacks brought on by their condition.

These dogs are even being used to help sufferers of nut allergies to avoid inadvertent ingestion of airborne nut particles; saving them from a potentially devastating anaphylaxic episode.

These dogs are making people’s lives better every day. Fantastic practical examples of their work are provided by the charity Medical Detection Dogs, which plays a pivotal role in raising awareness about the issue and matches medical assistance dogs with those in need. One of their client’s, Wendy, had struggled with unstable type 1 diabetes for over 20 years. Her medical alert assistance dog, Holly, has allowed Wendy to enjoy living life again, by alerting her whenever her blood sugars become volatile.

Photo credit: www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk

Our furry friends are providing a crucial social service by sniffing their way to the forefront of medical research. It is hoped that bio detection and medical assistance dogs will change how chronic illnesses are identified and managed across the world.


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