The Animal Doctor

Canine Awareness/Prescience

DEAR DR. FOX: Concerning animals seem to know when another is ill or going to die before we know: I had a similar experience with my two Boston terriers. The older one, Smedley, was always the alpha dog. When we walked, he always went first. But one day, the younger dog, Bud, took the lead during our walk. It was so unusual that my daughter and I both commented on it.

One week later, Smedley was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma. I think animals are a lot more in sync with the natural world than we give them credit for. -- L.D., St. Louis, Missouri

DEAR L.D.: Your younger dog seeming to know that his old canine companion was seriously ill, while neither you nor your daughter were aware of this health issue, does indeed underscore how perceptive dogs can be.

I do not regard this, unlike remote sensing, as some kind of psychic prescience. There are subtle physical cues that a sick animal may be unable to mask, as many species try to do to avoid detection of weakness and vulnerability by predators (especially deer and antelope). These include less stamina, less eye contact and social engagement, less playfulness and self-care (grooming, preening) and eventually less appetite and then death.

When I worked as a veterinary student in 1960 at England’s famed London Zoo, I spent a summer reviewing all case records of animal treatments, diagnoses and autopsies. During that work, I confirmed that many species are very adept at hiding/masking signs of disease that have been going on for weeks and months, undetected by observant keepers and curators who would find them suddenly dead in their enclosures!

But now with advanced monitoring technology, veterinarians and animal welfare and behavior specialists are beginning to improve animal well-being and husbandry practices, initiating veterinary attention that might otherwise have been delayed.


Humans have long leveraged dogs’ extraordinary scent-detection capabilities for tasks from hunting to the detection of explosives and narcotics. They have also proven themselves adept at sniffing out disease: Studies leveraging canines in detecting cancer have yielded accuracy rates of up to 99 percent. Research and development company BioScent DX is currently recruiting participants for a new study in this area, hoping to ultimately develop a noninvasive screening method for breast cancer and similar life-threatening diseases. Participants must either be in remission from breast cancer or belong to a high-risk group (having a family history of breast cancer or the presence of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation).

Women who volunteer to participate in the study will receive a sample collection kit. Participants simply donate samples of their breath and saliva, which are sent to the BioScent laboratory for processing. Samples will be presented to specially trained dogs for screening. Participants can submit samples as often as they like and may elect to receive their test results. Collection kits can be requested at a BioScent event or via

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

Visit Dr. Fox’s website at

More like The Animal Doctor