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Pets' Amazing Abilities

Can they detect cancer, predict seizures, and warn about low blood sugar?

Dogs That Predict Seizures

Doctors can’t explain it, but some patients with epilepsy report that their dogs are able to tell them when a seizure is coming.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants in Georgia, tells service-dog recipients there’s no way to train the animals to predict seizures -- only to respond once they occur. But she says about nine out of 10 of the service dogs her organization has placed develop the ability on their own within a year of placement.

“It really doesn’t seem to be terribly difficult,” Arnold says. “Dogs alert in different ways ... Most of them become visibly distressed in some way. They will start licking their person or pawing at them. It’s extremely common for the dog to tug their person toward the ground, as if they want them to lie down.”

The difficult part is determining what the dogs are reacting to, doctors say. Some people believe the dogs are picking up on a scent change, while others speculate they’re detecting an electrical signal or subtle behavioral change that occurs before the seizure, says neurologist Joseph Sirven, MD, editor-in-chief of Epilepsy.com and chair-elect of the Epilepsy Foundation professional advisory board.

“It’s a phenomenon, but we don’t know exactly what’s being registered,” Sirven says. “Evidence -- that’s hard to come by.”

Dogs That Rescue People

In 2008, a stray dog in Argentina captured hearts and headlines when she carried an abandoned infant back to her litter of puppies. A similar thing happened in Kenya three years before, according to media reports.

The fact that a dog might pull a baby out of a dangerous situation “is really not that surprising,” says animal behaviorist Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, because it likely recognizes the baby as “a new pack member.”

“Both dogs and cats will go into blazing buildings to get their litter out,” says Dodman, who directs the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine Animal Behavior Clinic. “If one of their buddies is lying in the road, it makes sense they would pull them back.”

Some dogs are better at this than others, in the same way that some people are more likely to run into a burning building without regard to their own safety, says ASPCA science advisor Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, a certified applied animal behaviorist.

In other tales of people rescued by dogs, we may be giving the pets too much credit. The dog that wakes his owners by barking when a house catches fire may simply be frightened or upset and wants the owner to do something, Zawistowski says.

“They’re not saying ‘Run, run, run.’ They’re saying, ‘Wake up and save me, something bad is happening,’” Zawistowski says. “We have to put this into context ... We see a lot of cases where pets wake people up and there’s nothing wrong.”

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