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Pets' Amazing Abilities

Can they detect cancer, predict seizures, and warn about low blood sugar?
By Daphne Sashin
WebMD Pet Health Feature
Reviewed by Audrey Cook, BVM&S

Anyone with a dog or cat will tell you: Pets are amazing. They’re loyal, comfort us in tough times, and even lower our blood pressure.

But some animals seem to perform what often seem like miracles, attracting attention for rescuing their owners from dangerous situations, predicting health problems, or making their way home from miles away.

Are these dogs and cats exceptional or are these abilities common among animals? Here's what experts tell WebMD.

Dogs That Detect Cancer

In San Anselmo, Calif., Nancy Best noticed that her dog kept sniffing and licking at her right breast. Doctors found breast cancer.

Research has shown that malignant tissues release chemicals that are different from normal tissue, and “it’s not surprising that dogs can recognize these differences,” says Ted Gansler, MD, MBA, director of medical content for the American Cancer Society.

In multiple studies, dogs have been “intriguingly accurate” at detecting certain cancers by smelling breath or urine samples, Gansler says. The latest research, published in 2011 in the journal Gut showed a Labrador retriever trained in cancer scent detection correctly identified 91% of breath samples and 97% of stool samples from patients with colon cancer.

Still, Gansler and others say much more research is needed on this -- so don't expect your dog to check your cancer risk. You need real cancer screening, regardless of your pet's behavior.

Dogs That Sniff Low Blood Sugar

Donnann Johnson of Lincoln, Calif., credits Pepper, the dachshund/Labrador mix she rescued, with saving her daughter Megan’s life.

Megan has type 1 diabetes. In the first six months after adopting Pepper, the dog woke her up four times in the middle of the night by poking, pushing, or licking her. Each time, Johnson says her daughter awoke feeling dizzy and hungry and realized that her blood sugar level “was getting seriously low.”

Can dogs predict drops in blood sugar? In 2008, Deborah Wells, PhD, a psychologist at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Island, reported on type 1 diabetes patients who said their animals often alerted them to low blood sugar before they noticed their own symptoms. Wells is now studying whether there is scientific evidence to support the phenomenon.

Mark Ruefenacht, a diabetes patient and the founder of Dogs4Diabetics in California, says his group has trained dogs for years to sniff subtle scent changes associated with low blood glucose and alert the person to the problem. He believes any dog with a good nose has the capacity to detect the changes. As with any scent-based training, you can never expect a dog to be 100%, but “they can have a very, very high success rate,” Ruefenacht says.

Lawrence Myers, DVM, PhD, an expert in canine scent detection at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, says it’s “plausible” that dogs would be able to detect the odor associated with low blood sugar, since “they can see and smell all sorts of things we don’t.” However, he cautions that there is “a lack of reliable data ... that confirms that they are doing that, and doing that reliably.”

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