Medical Service Dogs: When a Pet Becomes More Than a Companion
In our last post, we told you about how dogs are being trained to use their superior canine noses to sniff out the earliest stages of cancer. Dogs have the ability to save thousands of lives by catching cancers before they spread so they can be treated in time. In fact, dogs are much better at detecting the presence of tiny tumors than any machine or technique used in modern medicine! Some dogs, such as Daisy, the Labrador we told you about last time, have actually detected cancer in a human family member without any special training. It seems it's not only their amazing olfactory abilities that helps them accomplish this amazing feat but also the loving bond they share with their human(s).
It seems dogs have a natural knack for helping their humans with other medical issues too.
Below, we discuss some of the ways dogs do this.
Medical Service Dogs For Epileptic Seizures
Epilepsy is more common than you may think. According to Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE), one in twenty-six Americans will get epilepsy in their lifetime. Furthermore, sixty-five million people have it worldwide! It can be caused by a number of different genetic abnormalities or by different types of head injuries after birth. Epileptic seizures can also develop at any age and they often begin with no warning signs! In fact, in about two-thirds of the cases, the cause is totally unknown.
Epileptics often confine themselves to their home because they are afraid to go out in public. They don't want to have a seizure while driving or while at a store, a social gathering, or even while walking in a park. It's unsafe and embarrassing. Many even forego working because they are afraid of having seizures at work in front of their co-workers. For these reasons, epileptics often lose their independence.
Having a dog can often change all this and give epileptics their life back! Some dogs are able to sense when a seizure is coming on 1-45 minutes before it actually happens, the timing depending on the person. When this happens they may start barking in a specific way, staring into their human's eyes, nudging them, pawing them, licking them, running in circles, or pushing their head against them to alert them that a seizure is imminent. Their accuracy is remarkable with many dogs predicting these seizures with 100 percent accuracy and the dog actually knows well before the human knows! This gives the epileptic time to take medication that can block a seizure and or find a safe place to lie down and let it pass. If they are in a car, they can pull over immediately to a safe place so they do not cause injury to themselves or others. They also have time to call for assistance.
Many dogs will also stay with the person while they are having the seizure and help them in various ways. Some will make sure they stay lying down even when a seizure is really bad. They also provide comfort to the epileptic to keep them calm. Dogs can help epileptics wake up after a seizure so it doesn't get worse. Dogs can even bring the phone to the person or be trained to push a special button to call 9-1-1. Some dogs just naturally know they need to go get help and bark just like Lassie did when Timmy was in trouble! They also seem to instinctively know they need to protect their human if they are in danger such as being in the middle of a road or a place or in a place where they could fall a great distance.
A dog that can detect an epileptic seizure before it actually happens is sometimes called a seizure alert dog (SAD). A dog that help people during an epileptic seizure is sometimes called a seizure response dog (SRD). These dogs are also sometimes just referred to as seizure dogs and many dogs can alert and assist. It would also be fully justified to call them heroes because what they do is absolutely amazing!
What's most remarkable about seizure alert dogs and seizure response dogs is that they don't always have to be specifically trained for this. In fact, many seizure dogs develop these behaviors spontaneously after they have bonded with a human that has seizures and even after living with a human for a long time that suddenly develops seizures. No one knows for sure how dogs are able to detect seizures before they happen or how they understand it's an emergency situation but some scientists believe they smell a chemical change in their human.
One of the best documented cases of a spontaneous seizure response dog was published in the June 2010 issue of the research journal, "Epileptic Disorders." An Italian team from the Department of Neurological Sciences, University of Bologna, documented with video and other evidence a Yorkshire Terrier who spontaneously learned to respond to the seizures of a woman with Ring Chromosome 20 Syndrome. This syndrome occurs with the two arms of chromosome 20 fuse together into a ring, resulting in epileptic seizures and sometimes mental retardation. The terrier would go and alert the parents that a seizure had started and then immediately run back and push and "play bite" on her legs to make sure she stayed down.
You can view short video clips of the Yorkshire Terrier's response here:
Medical Service Dogs For Diabetics
According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost one-tenth of all Americans have diabetes! This percentage is rising very rapidly and it is predicted by many that about one-third of the American population will develop diabetes in the next few decades. Diabetes is gaining speed all over the world as well. While most people know that diabetics struggle with high blood sugar, many don't know they are also in danger of having their blood sugar drop very low and passing out or having a seizure as a result. In fact, low blood sugar can pose a more immediate threat than high blood sugar. Many diabetics die in their sleep because of low blood sugar.
When a diabetic's sugar drops, there is a specific smell in their breath. It smells like someone in ketosis, with the smell of acetone (fingernail polish remover). During a diabetic seizure or after someone passes out, the smell can usually be smelled by most humans if they smell diabetic's mouth directly. However, dogs can smell the faintest of faint acetone smell and can alert a diabetic that he or she has dangerously low blood sugar long BEFORE they actually get to the point of having a seizure or passing out! After the dog alerts them, the diabetic can check their blood sugar and eat something, usually with sugar in it, and prevent the seizure or passing out from happening.
If a dog has been specifically trained to do this, they are referred to as a diabetic assistance dog. However, many dogs seem to pick this up just by being around their favorite human!
Dogs Help In Many Other Medical Tasks As well
Dogs help keep autistic children calm down so they have fewer fits. A dog can help a child with attention deficient disorder stay more focused on the task at hand. Dogs help ease anxiety and depression in many people without ever being called a medical service dog. They can even sense when someone with a mental health issue is getting angry and purposefully act to calm them down before they do something they'll regret. Dogs can sense when someone with PTSD is about to break down and re-live their trauma and intervene before this happens. Dogs are being used with people who have had strokes to help them make a connection to the world again. In some cases, dogs been credited with getting stroke survivors to talk again. Migraine alert dogs can actually alert a person before a migraine starts so they can lie down in a dark place and let it pass before it develops into a full blown migraine!
There are even "infection detection dogs" who can sniff out infections. One dog saved his human companion by sniffing out a pulmonary valve infection in time for it to be cured! Some hospitals have dogs trained to track down very specific infections such as Clostridium difficile so they can know early on who has caught the bug.
Stay Tuned For More To Come
In addition to direct medical tasks, dogs help us stay healthy in many other ways as well. Next time, we'll talk about how dogs can detect bed bugs with amazing accuracy and protect you and your family in the process