Any dog owners will know that their pets have a penchant for sniffing. Sometimes, their constant need to smell every single tree, stile, lamppost, or blade of grass can be incredibly frustrating when you just want to walk and they keep stopping to take in the delightful scents of the local area. It’s all part of the enjoyment for them! But their keen sense of smell is not just a hobby or an annoyance; this truly incredible skill can be put to really good use…
You’re probably aware of sniffer dogs who work with police to identify drugs, explosives or missing people. You may even have seen them in action at ports or airports (not recently, obviously… sorry, sensitive subject for everyone who’s currently missing holidaying abroad!). But, did you know that clever canines can also sniff out illnesses? Leading this research in the UK is the charity Medical Detection Dogs, working with organisations such as the NHS, universities and medical schools. They train dogs in two ways – either as bio detection dogs, who are able to sniff out illnesses such as cancer, Parkinson’s, malaria, bacterial infections and now even COVID-19, or as medical alert dogs, who live with people with serious health conditions and can alert their owners of impending health emergencies. It’s incredible to think of the power these dogs have in their noses!
But, with many medical tests available, what’s the advantage of training a dog to detect illness? Well, with an estimated 30% of their brains dedicated to analysing odour, dogs are so incredibly sensitive to scents that they can detect diseases much earlier than they would otherwise be identified, enabling early intervention and often a better prognosis for the patient. Currently Parkinson’s, for example, does not have a definitive test but diagnosis relies on the identification of symptoms which may not become evident until up to 20 years after the disease first occurs, by which point it’s often too late for effective treatment. Earlier diagnosis could lead to intervention to slow the progression of the disease or, hopefully, aid in finding a cure.
Research by Medical Detection Dogs found that dogs’ noses can sniff out such minute traces of scents they’re equivalent to one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic-sized swimming pools! I mean, sometimes I struggle to taste a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of coffee, let alone smell it! These astonishing super-sniffers can pick up the scent of early-stage cancer more accurately (and far less intrusively) than many current screening methods. Usually, the bio-detection dogs will sniff samples in a lab (urine samples or sweat on clothing, for example) although ultimately they could be stationed at locations like ports and airports (sorry, said it again!) where they could prevent carriers of infectious diseases (like Malaria) from spreading illnesses via travel, by detecting odour on the body or breath.
Obviously, an illness that’s currently at the forefront of everyone’s minds is COVID-19 and trials are underway involving researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Durham University and Medical Detection Dogs to investigate whether dogs can identify asymptomatic carriers of the virus, or those with very mild symptoms. If successful, this could be a huge step forward in the fight against the pandemic as dogs could screen hundreds of people in an hour which is much quicker than any ‘sticking something up your nose’ test and potentially more accurate, too. Similar trials in Belgium have found that dogs can detect coronavirus in a person from day 1 of infection, days before it would be picked up by a PCR test. Early knowledge of infection would
enable people to isolate much sooner and therefore greatly reduce the risk of spreading the virus, and it’s been suggested that detection dogs could be used to enable large events like football matches and concerts to go ahead safely.
If you’re thinking this all sounds like a great deal of responsibility for the humble hound, you can rest assured that these amazing dogs are very well cared for. The lab-based bio detection dogs aren’t housed in kennels but live with loving families and their health, happiness and well-being is a top priority … quite rightly so. We’re hugely indebted to these remarkable creatures.
While bio detection dogs are busy putting their noses to good use in the fight against diseases, medical alert assistance dogs are also saving lives on a daily basis. Like guide dogs for the blind or hearing dogs for the deaf, medical alert dogs live and work with their owners. They are trained to detect and react to minute odour changes on the body and breath that occur shortly before a medical emergency, such as a hyper or hypo in someone with type 1 diabetes. Alerting them before the situation becomes serious or life-threatening means their owner can take medication or preventative action. A number of dogs currently support owners with diabetes, while others have been trained to help those with narcolepsy, complex neurological conditions, Addison’s and even severe nut allergies. Just one of many stories on the Medical Detection Dogs website is about Emily, who has a neurological condition which causes her to suddenly collapse. Her dog Barna can smell the changes that occur prior to a collapse and warns her up to 5 minutes before this happens, so she can get to safety. This canine ‘early warning system’ has changed Emily’s life: “I have my independence back. We as a family can’t put into words how much this means to us and how much the charity and Barna have changed my life for the better. I can socialise and have opportunities that I could not have dreamed of, all because of Barna and his very special nose which keeps me safe.”
I’ll never cease to be amazed at what animals are capable of and, next time I’m getting frustrated with my furry friends’ constant sniffing, I’ll definitely cut them some slack. After all, they’re just tuning up their potentially life-saving devices!