Doggy Doc: How Man's Best Friend Detects Health Problems

Featured Article, Healthy Living, Pet Health
on April 11, 2016

If you’re a dog owner, you may feel as if your canine pal has hidden healing superpowers. Maybe it was something simple—a paw on your knee when you were sad—or maybe it was something more impressive. Whatever your dog’s done for you, your instincts are probably more accurate than you think, and there’s plenty of good science to back up your intuition. Here are five health problems that dogs can (amazingly) detect.


Doggy Doc: How Man's Best Friend Detects Health Problems



Dogs Can Detect Cancer

Can dogs detect cancer? WebMD reports they can. Malignant tissues release chemicals that normal tissue does not, and dogs may be able to pick up on it.

According to Ted Gansler, M.D., M.B.A., and the director of medical content with the American Cancer Society, it’s not surprising that dogs can pick up on these differences. Multiple studies showed that dogs were “intriguingly” accurate at detecting cancer based on breath or urine samples, Gansler reports.

In a 2011 study in the European Respiratory Journal, four dogs correctly identified cancer in 71 out of 100 lung cancer samples and ruled out cancer in 372 out of 400 samples that did not have cancer.

How well did compare to traditional diagnostic methods? A researcher at Schillerhoehe Hospital, Thorsten Walles, MD, said the dogs’ abilities surpassed CT scans and bronchoscopy to detect cancer in people. Pretty amazing!


Dogs Can Detect Low Blood Sugar

There’s also strong evidence that dogs can detect low blood sugar. Deborah Wells, PhD, a psychologist at Queens University in Belfast, said her type 1 diabetes patients reported that their pets let them know they had low blood sugar before they knew themselves.

In fact, dogs have even successfully been trained to detect the scent changes in low blood glucose. According to HerePup, one dog named TaterTot saved his 4-year-old human from a potentially fatal blood sugar crash.

Lawrence Myers, a PhD and an expert in canine scent detection at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, says it’s plausible dogs could pick up on odors and Volatile Organic Compounds emitted when blood sugar crashes.


Doggy Doc: How Man's Best Friend Detects Health Problems



Dogs Can Detect Anxiety Attacks

Here’s what you may not know about anxiety attacks: while the causes are psychological, there are typically strong physical symptoms—the same symptoms present in a fight-or-flight response: fast breathing, increased heart rate, dilation, panic, and more.

Service dogs trained to help patients with anxiety can pick up on these physiological changes. They can then be trained to interrupt or calm a panic attack, alert someone, or backtrack to a safe location when their handler is disoriented after an attack.


Dogs Can Detect PTSD Episodes

Dogs are also great at helping patients suffering from other psychological disorders, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is an affliction that affects millions of Americans. According to, 8% of Americans, or 24.4 million people, have been through a traumatic event and are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Although PTSD has different symptoms from related psychological disorders, service dogs can detect them in much the same way. Trained dogs can then help alleviate PTSD-related distress by providing psycho-emotional grounding, waking their owners up from night terrors, or bringing medication. They can also create personal space for their human in crowded places, get help, or lead their owner to safety during a panic attack.

Karen Shirk, CEO of 4 Paws for Ability, mentioned on a recent podcast that service dogs trained to help people cope with PTSD are especially useful for veterans.


Doggy Doc: How Man's Best Friend Detects Health Problems



Dogs Can Detect Seizures

As if all these weren’t amazing enough, dogs can predict seizures before they occur. Here’s the interesting bit, though: they can’t be trained to do it, according to the founder of Canine Assistants, Jennifer Arnold.

However, Arnold reported that 90% of the service dogs placed by her organization actually developed the ability to predict seizures on their own within a year of placement. The dogs would become distressed and let others around know by barking loudly, licking or pawing their owners, lying down next to them, tugging them to the ground, moving objects out of their way, or even reviving them once the seizure ends.

How dogs manage this is still a mystery, according to neurologist Joseph Sirven, MD, chair-elect of the Epilepsy Foundation professional advisory board, although experts suspect these special dogs are triggered by scent, behavioral change, or perhaps even electromagnetic activity.


Long Story Short: Dogs Are Amazing

Dogs are a special breed (pun intended). They represent an incredible combination of hyper-senses and relentless loyalty—all wrapped up into a lovably furry package. There’s a reason they’re our best friends, and it’s not just because they’re fun. They save lives!