Last week I was lucky enough to bring my dog into the office whilst I worked (yes, I know I have an awesome boss) and despite knowing that the clear majority of my colleagues are animal lovers, I was really surprised at the reception he received. Everyone really enjoyed his presence and I was told that he was a ‘tonic’ and welcome back anytime. This started me thinking about the positive affect animals have on us humans and I began to investigate the science behind this.
It has been proven that the presence of animals has many physical and mental benefits and any pet owner will attest to the positive effect that the warm welcome they receive has on even the worst days. This includes the increased release of endorphins, lower blood pressure and the automation relaxation response that is elicited from simply stroking a pet. The mental affects include reduced anxiety, feelings of isolation and lifting and lessening the symptoms of depression. Domestic animals are now being regularly used in retirement and nursing homes, schools, the support of war veterans and those with disorders and disabilities. In respect of the school’s animals are being introduced around exam times in order to reduce anxiety but also with younger children to improve their reading and literacy skills. As a non-judgemental audience, the dogs are being used to improve reading confidence and help provide a naturally comfortable environment for the children. This scheme is benefiting over six thousand kids nationwide. In more extreme applications therapy animals have even been used in disaster areas to assist in the recovery from emotional trauma and I have witnessed myself their application in end of life care. I found it really interesting that the largest pets therapy charity in Europe, Pets As Therapy, was established in 1983, highlighting over thirty years of research and application in this area.
The Royal College of Nursing is running a pilot scheme studying exactly these benefits as the vast majority of nurses have witnessed the benefits of therapy animals, or even patients own pets but their application into hospitals and other healthcare settings has been restricted due to the obvious concerns regarding the health and safety of patients. It is hoped that trials such as these will add evidence to the benefits and that it could lead to a nationwide protocol for their introduction.
But the wonderful abilities of our four-legged friends do not end there. As highlighted in the blog title they also have an application in detection and diagnosis of illnesses and prevention of some of the life-threatening symptoms of disease.
Medical Detection Dogs is, again, a charity, which is displaying great successes in the detection of cancer. The charity was founded in 2008, but research predates this quite considerably with a paper being published in the British Medical Journal back in 2004, which demonstrated a 93% success rate in the detection of prostrate, bladder or urinary cancers by specially trained dogs. The dogs were capable of detecting the most minute changes in odour of the patient’s urine due to the presence of tumours. A dog’s nose is incredibly sensitive and can detect parts per trillion – to give this some perspective, Dr Claire Guest, who runs the charity stated this is the equivalent to one drop of blood in the water it would take to fill 2 Olympic Sized swimming pools! The dogs are trained onsite, working with healthy and affected samples of not only urine, but also breath samples. The dogs work 3 separate 20 minute sessions 4 days a week and happily live with foster families whilst not working. Their training is on a reward basis include clicker and food rewards or favourite balls and toys and the dog will lay down to indicate detection, in a similar way to drug detection dogs.
In a very strange twist of fate, Daisy – Dr Guest’s own dog, alerted her to a legion in her breast, which due to being caught so early was happily successfully treated. Daisy, a black Labrador, has been awarded the Blue Cross Medal for her work in this field. This success and the application of dogs into the mainstream – to provide diagnostic support is being supported by many disease charities, including the Prostrate Cancer Support Group. This form of cancer can be difficult to diagnose as the current methods have an alarmingly high 75% false positive rate and the only way to be certain involves an invasive biopsy.
This research is not unique to the UK but is also underway globally. The Pine Street Foundation in California has also displayed very high successfully detection rates in breast and lung cancers from breath samples. Reporting a 99% success rate for lung cancer and 95% for breast cancer. The dog(s) were so accurate that they actually identified problems in the study protocol. One of the samples which was taken from a healthy patient, in order to be used as a control, lead to an indication. It turns out that the person that produced the sample was actually in remission from breast cancer, this indication lead her to return to her consultant and a resulting MRI scan showed a recurrence. Research is also underway to create an ‘electronic’ nose which can replicate the detection ability of the dogs and the Israel Institute of Technology is planning a larger study based on strong results from a pilot.
The brilliant dogs do not end there. Medical Detection Dogs also train Medical Alert Assistance Dogs. Molly, is a cocker spaniel that provides a life changing support to a 12 year old boy called Steven, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes. Steven’s blood sugar levels can drop so dramatically that he will fall to the floor and require instant glucose. Prior to having Molly in their lives, his parents would have to set alarms in order to monitor Stevens’ levels through the night and this was obviously a constant worry for them. Molly has been trained to smell the changes in Steven’s breath that are linked to a reduction in his levels and will bark in order to indicate this, advising his parents that they need to be checked and calibrated. Amazingly, Molly can detect this change from some distance and has alerted by running onto the football pitch on which Steven was playing. On one occasion, the situation was so drastic that even whilst administering glucose Molly continued to alert and it seemed that despite 3 doses, Steven’s level was falling faster than it could be replaced. Molly was the only indication of this and the danger that Steven could slip into a coma was very real.
Another black Labrador, provides assistance to a lady that has such a severe nut allergy that she cannot even breath the same air as somebody who has eaten nuts and has had a very severe reaction to someone else’s almond shampoo – resulting in 40 urgent trips to A&E with anaphylactic shock during a 3 year period. Now Willow is helping her by detecting the smell of nuts and indicating to remove her from the environment and will continue to indicate by literally pushing her out of harm’s way.
Having completed this research I am not sure what amazes me most – the wonderful work of these dogs and the humans that train and work with them, or the fact that all of this research is funded by donations and that they do not receive ANY Government funding. I for one am logging onto each website right now to set up a regular donation, links can be found below if you wish to do the same, or you wish to volunteer your time with either of these great causes. For some dogs are more than just man’s best friend – they can also be guardian angels.
More Blogs from Julie McEwan
Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors. Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.