You swear that your dog knows when you’re feeling under the weather. At the first sign of sniffles, they’re at your side, giving you extra cuddles and guarding your bedroom door while you get some rest. They might even refuse a visit from their favourite Dog Walker!
But, is it really true that our dogs can detect illnesses? Or are their caretaking ways all part of our fever dreams? Well, according to many scientific studies, the answer is that dogs absolutely can detect illness! Not only do our dogs react to shifts in our mood and behaviour, they seem to be able to detect signs of stress and bodily changes on a chemical level.
If you read our article, 5 Medical Conditions that Dogs Can Detect, you already know that your furry friend can sense signs of cancer, Epileptic seizures, low blood sugar, Malaria, and Parkinson’s Disease. And now, we’ve got even more facts to share about our illness-detecting doggos.
How exactly do dogs detect illnesses?
Before we cover some of the illnesses and changes in the body that dogs can detect, let’s talk about how our canine companions do it! Here are a few of their sickness-sensing secrets:
- Dogs can smell chemical changes. Even though we don’t pick up on them as easily as our dogs do, the truth is, we’re constantly emitting scent molecules called volatile organic compounds. These air-borne VOCs carry messages about our health, and vary depending on whether we’re suffering from infectious diseases or metabolic diseases like diabetes. All doggos are sensitive to these scent molecules, but trained service dogs are even more skilled at differentiating between various kinds of cancer and viruses.
- They are tuned into our patterns of behaviour. As social animals with thousands of years of experience watching humans, our doggos are excellent at noticing changes in our behaviour. Something as simple as taking a bit longer to get out of bed in the morning or reaching for the tissue box doesn’t go unnoticed by your watchful pupper!
- They can hear it in our voices. No matter how mild your symptoms may be, chances are, your doggo knows just from the slight change in your voice that something is off. Whether your voice is an octave lower thanks to a cold or your speech pattern is accelerated from anxiety, your dog will certainly have alarm bells ringing!
Since we can’t know exactly what our dogs are thinking, it’s certainly possible that they have even more tricks to know when their beloved humans are feeling ill! We may not know the full picture of how they do it, but here are a few conditions that we know our dogs can detect:
Some people who suffer from migraines are able to predict an episode by learning to identify symptoms of the prodrome. This early phase of a migraine episode is characterised by subtle changes in the body, such as lack of focus or food cravings, that can be difficult to notice. But not for dogs! In fact, with their incredible sense of smell, dogs can sniff out the spikes in serotonin that are common in the period before the onset of a migraine.
In a survey of over Dog Owners who suffer from migraines, half said that their untrained dogs showed behavioural changes in the early stages of a migraine attack or even earlier. The most common doggy behaviours included seeking physical closeness to their Owner, licking them, lying or sitting on them, staring at them, and even trying to herd their Owner to a chair or bed.
Not only is this behaviour proof that our doggos are amazing caretakers, it’s a promising discovery in migraine treatment! Because migraines can be better managed and even avoided through treatment during the prodromal phase, dogs could help their owners lessen their symptoms or prevent episodes altogether.
#2: Coronavirus (and other types of viruses!)
Sure, your doggo might have been happy to have you home in the beginning stages of the coronavirus pandemic, but now, they’re probably as eager to get this thing over with as the rest of us! The good news is, their virus-detecting skills could help.
Over the years, dogs have been trained to detect various viruses including the avian influenza virus and the bovine viral diarrhoea virus as a way to keep livestock safe and prevent flu outbreaks all over the world. So, it’s no surprise that they’re also able to detect the new virus in town: the coronavirus.
While the coronavirus is chemically different from influenza viruses, dogs still seem to be able to detect it through scent. In fact, they may even be more accurate than many of the best tests we have available today! The problem is, though, we’re still finding the best way to train dogs how to differentiate between coronavirus and other types of viruses such as the flu or a cold. So, while you may see covid-detecting doggos in airports, we’re a long way from relying on them fully as a coronavirus response.
Like migraines, narcoleptic episodes are often preempted by subtle biological changes that dogs can detect. That means that trained service dogs, like Poppy the Boxer mix from Ireland, can help their Owners by warning them of an attack so that they can move to a safe area or call for help. Trained service dogs are also able to help people with narcolepsy by waking them up from an episode or making sure their excessive fatigue doesn’t make them miss their morning alarm clock.
#4: Pregnancy (maybe!)
Even though we’re still waiting for peer-reviewed scientific studies on this topic, most animal behaviourists agree that dogs probably can detect early pregnancy. After all, if dogs can sniff out chemical changes associated with viruses, migraines, blood pressure and more, it’s highly likely that they notice the hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy, as well.
Can your doggo be an illness-detecting dog?
We can bet that your dog already has the capacity to detect illnesses, regardless of whether they’ve been trained. And, you can even hone their skills through guided scent work, which is a brilliant way to provide them with mental stimulation.
But, does your pup have what it takes to be a dedicated detection dog? Well, maybe, but it requires a lot of work! According to the Detector Dog Program of Australia, professional pups require at least 7 months of intensive training and regular assessments in order to gain the sniffing skills required to be a detection dog. In most cases, medical detection dogs are raised and trained in professional settings from the time they’re puppies.
Even if your dog doesn’t have a future in medical detection work, they’re still committed to making sure their beloved human is in good health! If you notice that your pupper is sticking by your side more than usual, even refusing to take a trip to the dog park or a visit from their friendly Dog Walker, it might be because they want to take care of you! Good doggo!