As the great cartoonist Charles Schulz duly noted, “Happiness is a warm puppy,” but dogs can bring happiness as well as much, much more. Dogs may help save your life, as they’ve been increasing the lifespan of their human companions for a number of years in a number of ways. Dogs that work sniffing out bombs, in search and rescue operations and as seeing-eye companions are some of the more visible ways canines have been increasing human longevity, but we also dug up five less obvious and even surprising ways dogs have been helping us live longer, healthier and happier lives.
5. Dogs May be Able to Smell Cancer
Cancer may be closer to meeting its match with early detection from cancer-sniffing dogs. Because results have been so phenomenally accurate, especially when it comes to dogs detecting lung cancer, there are still plenty of skeptics who say such a thing is too good to be true. At least two studies suggest otherwise. A study published in a 2005 issue of Integrative Cancer Therapies and more recent research conducted in Europe both conclude dogs are able to pick up the subtle scent of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, associated with cancer, something other diagnostics cannot always do with much accuracy.
Dogs performing the earlier tests sniffed out cancer in breath samples taken from people afflicted with lung cancer and those diagnosed with breast cancer. The dogs were able to differentiate the breath samples of cancer victims from samples collected from healthy volunteers with remarkable accuracy; the clever canines had a 99 percent success rate detecting lung cancer and an 88 percent success rate detecting breast cancer. That latter figure is about on par with the detection rate for mammograms. The later study, reported in 2011 in the European Respiratory Journal, focused on lung cancer and resulted in dogs sniffing out lung cancer in 71 out of 100 samples and identifying 372 healthy samples out of 400. Other research has shown dogs have also been able to sniff out ovarian cancer and early stage bowel cancer.
4. Dogs Are Being Trained to Help Diabetics
If you’re a diabetic and your dog starts to suddenly bark, whine, lick you wildly or display other seemingly inexplicable behavior, you may want to sit down and have a snack. It could mean you’re suffering a hypoglycemic episode. At least that was the case for 138 out of 212 type 1 diabetics who responded to a survey from Queen’s University in Belfast. That gives the dogs a success rate of 65 percent. Researchers cautioned that further studies are needed to explore just how the dogs can do this. Still, the anecdotal evidence that dogs can help diabetics is so promising that trainers in Great Britain are now training dogs to sniff out indications of low blood sugar levels, which allows the canines to alert their masters that they may be in danger. While the diabetic eats something to elevate their blood sugar, perhaps they can share an additional treat to thank the dog.
3. Dogs Are Advancing Cancer Research
Animals are no longer automatic research subjects for cosmetic companies and the like, but dogs may be saving lives by contributing to cancer research. Scientists have long recognized the similarities between dog and human cancers, which makes dogs ideal for use in cancer research. Experimental treatments that have not yet been approved for humans are often OK to use on dogs, provided the dog owner is willing to allow it — and many dog owners are eager to try new breakthroughs that may help save their beloved pet.
Such “investigational” treatments are often proposed when conventional treatments are not working, and they are also often less expensive to pursue. Pet owners get a rundown of all the risks involved, of course, which they can easily compare to the risk of traditional methods. Many pet owners have been willing to give the treatments a go, according to the Public Library of Science Medicine web site. The cancer treatments, if successful, not only have the potential to save both canine and human lives, but they could elevate your dog as a hero in the annals of medical history.
2. Dogs Are Generally Therapeutic
You can lie on a couch to disclose your woes to your dog any day of the week — without a hefty psychiatry bill — and canines have become increasingly common as therapy dogs for a wide range of woes. Those suffering from anxiety and depression have found dogs can help dig them out of the doldrums, even helping to prevent suicide. On the physical therapy front, dogs have been trained to help elderly patients and handicapped individuals complete simple chores as well as encourage them to engage in activities through interaction and play. Therapy dogs can work with an individual at home or in various facilities. The dogs have been a welcome addition to nursing homes, hospices, rehabilitation centers, schools, homeless shelters and hospitals.
1. Dogs Contribute to Your Overall Health
You don’t have to be ailing to benefit from dogs, as they are known to contribute to making you healthier in general. For starters, walking them daily automatically makes you get outside to exercise, while being out and about fends off isolation. Dogs can be very effective people magnets, creating conversations and encounters from dog-adoring fans. And then there’s the physical stuff. Studies have shown that dog owners in general have lower blood pressure, and heart-attack survivors who have pets live longer than those who don’t have pets, according to WebMD.com. Male pet owners have also shown lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels. Another study showed stockbrokers suffering from hypertension who brought home a dog or cat had lower blood pressure during stressful events than those without pets.
To be fair, some of this research studied the benefits of “pets” in general, so it’s possible other warm and affectionate companion animals could help boost your overall mood and health. A pet that seems to care about you may be a key to the health benefits, as it’s unclear how much a pet tarantula, scorpion or lizard that ignores you may contribute to your overall health.
One More: A True Story of a Life-Saving Dog
Although we already know seeing-eye dogs help save lives by keeping their owners out of traffic, it’s not every day these dogs win national awards for their actions. Such was the case on Sept. 11 with Roselle, a yellow Labrador retriever who led her blind owner, Michael Hingson, from the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s North Tower after the airplane hit. Roselle led Hingson down more than 1,400 steps to the safety of an underground subway station. The dog was named American Hero Dog of the Year in a 2011 ceremony, sadly held four months after her death.