Dogs Can Detect Disease

Professional Dog Trainers Program: Career Benefits

PAWS FOR PATIENTS Dogs not only offer comfort, but also help detect disease

Annals of canine medicine

ANNE MCILROY – Globe and Mail Story Saturday February 4th – 2006


working-dogs-cancer-detectionFergie, a black Lab, knows when the teenager she loves is about to suffer an epileptic seizure. The dog stares at Denise Morrissey for 30 minutes to an hour. Fergie’s unrelenting gaze prompts the 16-year-old to get down on the ground where she will be safe.
Ms. Morrissey has had several seizures a day since she was 7, and Fergie was trained by the Lions Foundation of Canada to alert her mother or father when she did. The dog joined the family at their home on Conception Bay, Nfld., three years ago. Soon, Fergie was forecasting the impending electrical storms in the young woman’s brain. With her dog at her side, Ms. Morrissey doesn’t need a wheelchair to be safe at school, and she hasn’t had a bad fall in three years.

“I don’t know how [Fergie] does it, whether it is a smell she notices, or subtle changes in breathing,” says Ms. Morrissey’s mother, Cindy.

Scientists don’t know either. But Adam Kirton, a researcher at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, wants to find out. He surveyed 122 families with both a child with epilepsy and a dog. Fifteen per cent reported their pets could tell when the youngsters were going to have a seizure. Now he’d like to test dogs more rigorously in the laboratory.

Dogs can detect more than epilepsy. A recent California study found that three Labradors and two Portuguese water dogs detected lung cancer in people with the disease with 99-per-cent accuracy. They sniffed out breast cancer 88 per cent of the time. Other studies have suggested dogs can detect melanoma and bladder cancer, although not with the same success rate. There are anecdotal reports of dogs detecting the onset of migraines and, for diabetics, changes in blood sugar.

For years, highly trained dogs have navigated for the blind and alerted the deaf to ringing phones and doorbells. Dogs have come to the aid of the physically disabled, helping them pick up dropped objects, pressing buttons for them in elevators, even pushing wheelchairs up inclines.

The role of pooches in medicine is also growing — both in the direct care of patients and in the lab.

Dog DNA may hold the key to understanding complex diseases such as epilepsy, and dogs who develop cancer are often given experimental treatments that one day may help man and his best friend.

Dogs are also helping autistic children. Experiments at the University of Guelph in Ontario and elsewhere suggest that highly trained dogs improve the lives of children with the disorder, helping them connect with the world around them.

“Animals are such a lovely social lubricant,” said University of Guelph professor Cindy Adams, who studied about 45 autistic children who were given trained dogs. The dogs are people magnets, and draw both children and adults in the community into conversations. Some of the autistic children transferred repetitive behaviour, such as persistent tapping or rubbing, to the dog, which is more socially acceptable. The dogs also kept younger children off the roads.

Pet therapy is now part of the weekly routine in many hospitals, more than 200 in Ontario alone. Studies suggest that contact with animals, especially dogs, can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol and ward off depression in sick people.

Dogs have provided comfort to dying patients. A golden retriever named Faith befriended a woman in the final stages of breast cancer, said Nicole Burgess, who works in palliative care on Vancouver Island. The woman had no family, and welcomed a warm, soft companion, who was trained by Pacific Assistance Dogs, a charity in Burnaby, B.C.

“I had to step out to see another client down the hall, but I left Faith so she wouldn’t be alone. When I came back, my client had died, but she had not died alone. She had her arm cuddled around Faith,” Ms. Burgess said.

It is hard to argue with testimonials like that, and anyone who works with dogs and patients will tell you that the animals help people through difficult times in ways scientists would never be able to measure.

Fergie, for example, has not only kept Ms. Morrissey safe, but has also helped the teenager fit in at school. Fergie is the only dog at the school and students are drawn to her, and as result, to her owner.

“Seizures are not socially acceptable. But having Fergie is a cool thing for Denise. The dog is a cool extension of herself,” Mrs. Morrissey said.

Fergie also has given the teenager more independence and more dignity. She can find a safe, private place to have a seizure, where she doesn’t have to worry about other people’s reactions.

Her doctors trust the dog. The family once took Ms. Morrissey to hospital to be checked out after a major seizure; they were ready to go home, but Fergie wouldn’t settle down. The doctors said the dog was telling them that they shouldn’t leave, Mrs. Morrissey said. A few minutes later the teenager had another major seizure.

Many experts, however, remain skeptical about the usefulness of dogs in more technical areas, such as diagnosing disease.

Critics of the cancer-detection studies, for example, note that dogs may be responding to the chemical traces of chemotherapy on a person, rather than tiny amounts of compounds such as alkanes and benzene derivatives found in cancerous tissue.

Even in epilepsy, where the anecdotal evidence is strong that some dogs can predict seizures, the medical community remains unconvinced, Dr. Kirton said. He has had trouble securing funding for the second stage of his work, which would involve training dogs to detect seizures and then studying whether they can warn children in a laboratory setting. Training dogs is expensive, costing $30,000 to $40,000 for each animal. Eventually, he hopes to figure out how the dogs can tell a seizure is coming.

Dogs also get epilepsy, and studying the dog genome for clues about the disease is more mainstream — especially now that the dog genome has been sequenced, making gene hunts shorter and less expensive. The genetics of human epilepsy are difficult to decipher because many genes appear to be involved.

It is easier with dogs, said Berge Minassian, at Sick Kids in Toronto. Many purebred species have a distinct version of the disease, and perhaps a single gene that causes it. Humans and dogs share many genes, so once they find an epilepsy gene in dogs, they can look for something similar in humans.

“The dog model is going to be a fantastic way to find human epilepsy genes, and we are embarking on a major effort to do so,” he said.

He has already found one faulty gene that causes epilepsy in miniature wirehaired dachshunds. He and colleague, Hannes Lohi, are now looking for the mutation that causes a form of epilepsy in Finnish spitz dogs, the national breed in Finland. With luck, different breeds will fill in different parts of the human genetic picture for epilepsy, Dr. Minassian said.

Dog genetics may illuminate the pathology of other diseases as well. The chromosomes of Doberman pinschers may hold clues for treating heart disease and narcolepsy. Spaniels may help scientists understand a degenerative neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy.

It is not just canine genes that interest scientists. Dogs with arthritis are used to test artificial hips. At the University of Guelph, dogs with melanoma have been given a new therapeutic vaccine that might stimulate both the canine and human immune system to kill cancerous cells.

Melanoma, a deadly form of skin cancer, is similar in humans and canines, said Steve Kruth, a professor of internal medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph.

“They share our lives with us, they have similar diseases,” he said. Dogs are large mammals, closer to humans than rodents. They also get cancer spontaneously, while many lab rats or mice are bred to be susceptible to a specific form of the disease. Dogs tend to have more aggressive cases of cancer. This is bad news for the dogs and the people who love them, but it means scientists can quickly see if the drug or therapy they are testing is working.

With the vaccine, only six dogs were tested, enough to suggest it was safe to try in humans, but not to know if it worked.

“This is a brand-new therapy, it has not been attempted before,” said Jack Gauldie, a researcher at McMaster University in Hamilton who worked with Dr. Kruth and is now testing the vaccine in humans. “The dogs gave us more surety that we had something safe. It was very important.”

If the vaccine works, it will help dogs as well as people.

But that is not the case with all the experiments involving dogs in Canada. Roughly 3,000 were used in research in 2004, according to the Canadian Council on Animal Care, which sets the standards for the use of animals in research. Most of them would have been euthanized, and a small number would have come from pounds or pet shelters, said Michael Baar, a veterinarian with the organization.

In some experiments, there is something in it for the dog, said Elizabeth Stone, dean of the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. Dogs have also benefited from work in humans. She notes that techniques for removing cataracts were first perfected in humans, and many cancer treatments now available to dogs were first tested in people. In the United States, she added, people sometimes stipulate that after they die they want their pacemaker to go to a dog with heart problems.

Researchers are also concerned about the health and happiness of service dogs. It is important that they get down time, said Dr. Adams, the Guelph researcher who studied autistic children. “They can’t be a service dog 24-7. They need to pee, they need to run, that kind of stuff.”

They also need to be loved. A strong bond is important, said Michelle Wright, who trains special-skill dogs for the Lions Foundation. Her organization has trained more than 30 dogs to help people with epilepsy, and the animals are donated to families such as the Morrisseys.

The dogs are taught to recognize seizures and to get help, either fetching someone in the home, or hitting an alert button that connects the house to a emergency department by phone. Like Fergie, some of the dogs develop the ability to warn that a seizure is coming.

Fergie goes everywhere with Ms. Morrissey, and is well loved. The dog gets a play period every day when she can run around with the kids at school. The teenager feeds her, grooms her and makes sure she gets bathroom breaks.

After Ms. Morrissey has a seizure, Fergie lies down beside her and licks her face. When she is coming out of one, it is Fergie she reaches for first.

Says her mother, “Fergie is her best friend.”

Is that paw clean?

Pet therapy programs are popular in Canadian hospitals, and the new Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary will have a special pet room where kids can visit with their own animals.

With so many sick people being perked up by a visit from a furry friend, researchers at the University of Guelph wanted to find out if the animals were picking up bacteria on their rounds — which wouldn’t be good for the pets or the patients. Sandra Lefebvre and Scott Weese found that 58 per cent of the pet therapy dogs they tested carried the bacteria C. difficile, which can cause diarrhea in hospitalized patients. They are conducting an experiment to see whether the dogs pick up the bugs in the hospital or are a source of infection.

“No one has ever reported someone getting sick from these animals,” Ms. Lefebvre said.

The researchers would like to come up with recommendations for every hospital to follow, such as making sure animals are well washed, so they have no fecal material on their bodies, or having animals sit on their own sheet if they get up on a bed.

At Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, all dogs are washed before they visit patients.

–Anne McIlroy

Ben Kersen & The Wonderdogs