DOGS AND CATS AREN'T DOCTORS, BUT THEY CAN BE TALENTED DIAGNOSTICIANS
By Kim Campbell Thornton
Diane Papazian was allergic to dogs and she didn't especially want a second one, but her husband, Harry, persuaded her to let him purchase Troy, a 3-month-old Doberman pinscher. Not long afterward, Troy was in bed with the couple one evening and began insistently nuzzling Diane's left side. It caused her to start itching, and that's when she discovered the lump in her breast. It turned out to be malignant, but Diane is now cancer-free after a double mastectomy and chemotherapy.
The Papazians credit Troy with saving Diane's life. And he's not the only pet who has helped owners make such a discovery. A number of dogs and cats have alerted their people not only to various cancers and dangerous infections, but also to oncoming seizures, allergic reactions and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Our dogs and cats may not have been to medical school, but their superior senses of smell, as well as their habit of closely observing us 24/7, put them in the catbird seat when it comes to recognizing that something in our bodies has changed, even if we're not always sure what they're trying to tell us.
Scientific studies have confirmed the canine ability to sniff out lung, breast, bladder, prostate, colorectal and ovarian cancer, in some cases before it's obvious through testing. They do this by taking a whiff of urine or breath samples from patients. Dogs have also been trained to alert people to oncoming epileptic seizures and assist them to a safe place until the seizure is over.
What's their secret?
Dogs and cats live in a world of smells, and their olfactory sense is far more acute than our own. Physiological changes such as lowered blood sugar or the presence of cancer produce or change volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted through the pores of the skin. Animals smell the difference and respond to it by licking, poking or pawing at the area.
Your doctor won't be sending you out for a "Lab test" or "cat scan" any time soon, but scientists are working to determine the exact compounds dogs are scenting, with the goal of developing an electronic "nose" that could detect cancer.
"Dogs are a wonderful part of the development of new technologies," says Cindy Otto, DVM, Ph.D., executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. "Their incredible sense of smell allows them to detect very low concentrations of odors and also pick out specific odors from a tapestry of smells that can confuse standard technology. Unlike some of the other members of the animal kingdom with a highly developed sense of smell, dogs are also willing collaborators in our work."
Not every sign of unusual interest your pet takes in your body means you have cancer, of course. Robin Anderson of Seekonk, Mass., recalls the time her Labrador retriever, DaisyMae, began poking her thigh over and over.
"I noticed a new mole where she was poking me with her nose," she says. "I never would have noticed it because it was so small at the time she tuned into it."
Anderson asked her doctor about the mole, and he deemed it benign. Eventually, DaisyMae lost interest in it. Anderson says, however, that she is extremely good at diagnosing ear infections in her packmates.
"When DaisyMae sniffs and licks their ears, I also sniff the insides of the ears. I usually find a yeast infection and can treat it before the bad, gooey symptoms appear."
So if your dog or cat is insistently sniffing or pawing at a particular area of your body (or your other pet's body), pay attention. He or she may be trying to tell you something important.
Q: My cat seems to be peeing in the litter box more often, and when I happen to notice him in it, he seems to be straining to get anything out. He peed in the bathtub last night, and the urine had a pinkish tinge. What do you think is going on with him? -- via email
A: One of the most common and frustrating health problems we veterinarians see in cats is urinary stones. That's because diagnosing them can be a long, drawn-out process of elimination, if you'll excuse the pun.
Common signs of urinary stones are frequent urination, straining to urinate, pain during urination, blood in the urine (that pinkish tinge you noticed), dribbling urine, peeing in unusual places -- such as in the sink or bathtub -- and obsessively licking the genital area.
When waste products in urine become concentrated, they form tiny crystals that can grow into larger stones. Stones occur most often in the bladder, but are also found in the urinary tract, the kidneys, or the ureter -- the tube that connects the kidneys and the bladder. Sometimes the crystals enlarge so much that they reduce or completely block the flow of urine through the urinary tract. That's potentially fatal.
Your cat needs to see the veterinarian, stat. Catching this problem early and treating it effectively is the best way to prevent it from becoming worse. Some types of stones can be dissolved with a special diet and an increase in water intake. Consider getting a pet fountain to increase your cat's interest in drinking water.
It's important to give the diet time to work. You may not see results for several months. Sometimes, the stones are accompanied by a bacterial infection, which must be treated with antibiotics. Stones may require surgical removal if they are blocking the flow of urine. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Studies support a better
nine lives for cats
-- The Winn Feline Foundation recently awarded more than $173,000 to nine feline medical research grant projects. The organization is supporting studies of a variety of diseases affecting cats, including gastrointestinal disease associated with E. coli infection in kittens; feline infectious peritonitis; hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the most common form of heart disease in cats; oral squamous cell cancer; feline calicivirus; and new drug treatments for Tritrichomonas foetus. Another study continues investigation into the use of stem cells to treat chronic kidney disease in cats. Individuals, clubs, organizations and companies may sponsor specific projects with a minimum donation of $250.
-- Ever wonder what a retriever does besides fetch tennis balls? These specialized dogs flush and retrieve upland game -- pheasant, grouse, quail or partridge -- or retrieve waterfowl, such as ducks and geese. On land, retrievers quarter the field, moving back and forth in front of the hunter as they seek out game birds, flush and then retrieve them. Water retrievers wait while the bird is shot, mark where it falls, and then bring it in, often from icy cold or rough water. Retrieving breeds include the American water spaniel, Boykin spaniel, Chesapeake Bay retriever, curly coated retriever, flat-coated retriever, golden retriever, Irish water spaniel, Labrador retriever and Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever. The standard poodle can also be an effective retriever.
-- The New Hampshire legislature is considering a bill that would include pets in domestic violence protection laws. Dogs, cats and other family pets are often threatened, harmed or even killed by abusers, making it difficult for abuse victims to flee without fearing for an animal's well being. New Hampshire does not currently have any domestic-violence shelters that permit pets, but some animal shelters work with crisis centers to provide temporary housing for pets belonging to abuse victims. Veterinarians, boarding kennels and volunteers are also available to help. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.