Although we like to think of ourselves as the most well developed of all species on the planet, animals have abilities that far surpass us in almost every regard.
Although doctors tend to pour cold water on the possibility of animals predicting illness, cases abound of dogs predicting seizures in their owners. Many are trained to be seizure-response dogs to help their owners get to a safe place before a seizure has begun. These dogs have been taught to lie down on top of their owner or fetch his medicine, once a seizure has begun.
Such trained behavior is well within the reach of any dog. But many owners report that their dogs have moved from responding to seizures to predicting them. This has arisen spontaneously; most trainers believe it is impossible to train a dog to anticipate a fit, as humans themselves have no reliable early-warning system.
But about 10 per cent of people with seizure-response dogs claim their dogs have become seizure-alert dogs.
According to Dr Rupert Sheldrake, the first study of dog epilepsy prediction was by British vet Andrew Edney, who studied dogs of all breeds who’d become seizure-alert, according to their owners. Of the 21 who responded to Edney’s survey, all claimed that their dogs developed this talent without training.
In all cases, the dogs would:
During the seizure, the dogs either stayed with their owners, often licking them, or rushed to get help. According to Edney’s study, the dogs had a remarkable track record. One could distinguish a ‘fake’ seizure from a real one. Sheldrake has even had reports of a rabbit and a cat being able to predict its owner’s seizures.
Medical scientist and dog-lover Val Strong founded Support Dogs to train dogs to help physically disabled owners. Several years later, when a physically disabled epileptic contacted them about having a companion dog, Val hit upon the idea of attempting to train the dog to predict the woman’s seizures. They chose a rescue dog (most of the trained dogs are from a shelter), and within three months the dog was giving the woman a half-hour warning as well as arriving with a blanket and the telephone once she’d had her seizure.
Because the woman often finds it difficult to talk immediately after seizure, the dog has been trained to bark down the phone to her friends.
Trainers like Val Strong emphasize that they don’t train dogs to recognize an epileptic fit per se. Instead, they simply observe the dog’s reactions prior to a fit and train it to accentuate its behavior. So, if a dog reacts by staring at the owner, Val will teach it to lick the owner’s face, jump up or tug on his hand.
Some Seizure Alert Dogs® even jump on top of their owner and shake, imitating the seizures they’ve observed.
In Val’s experience, most—if not all—dogs that are closely bonded with their owner will be able to predict fits.
The experience of one of Val’s clients is typical. Gillian McCluskey had a very restricted life from the age of nine. By the time she contacted Support Dogs, Gillian was having from six to 10 seizures a week. Her worry over becoming overstressed often brought on a fit.
Support Dogs arranged for her to have a jet-black mixed dog called Harvey. “It wasn’t long before Harvey was able to give me an alert of 15 minutes,” Gillian says. “Harvey’s alert is to stare at me and whine. As I am coming out of the seizure, Harvey licks my face until I can say ‘Good boy,’ then he looks for his reward.”
After three-and-a-half years of getting Harvey, Gillian’s attacks dramatically reduced to just a few with no change in her medication. “I can now lead an almost normal life and do things that anyone else would take for granted,” she says. “To think it’s all down to a little black dog.”
Besides epileptic fits, dogs—and even cats—have learned to monitor blood-sugar levels in diabetic owners. Sheldrake recounts one study by Gloucestershire doctors who interviewed diabetics with pets. Of 43 owners, 15—nearly a third—claimed that their animals gave them warning by either barking to get their attention or seeking a neighbor for help.
In one instance, a dog named Max lived with a severe diabetic. If her blood-sugar levels plummeted in the middle of the night, Max would shake her husband until he woke up to give her the medication.
Perhaps the most remarkable cases are those where a pet has helped to diagnose cancer or an emergency, like appendicitis. The prestigious medical journal The Lancet once published a report of a Border Collie–Doberman mixed dog that kept licking and sniffing at a mole on his owner’s leg, and even attempted to bite it off when its owner wore shorts.
Eventually, the mole was found to be malignant, but at an early stage, so it could be treated. Since then, retired orthopedic surgeon Mr John Church has set up a Canine Olfactory Detection Center, following another anecdotal report of a dog sniffing out its owner’s melanoma.
The Center, in the Department of Dermatology at Amersham Hospital, has carried out the first cancer-detection study using six dogs to sniff the urine of patients suspected of having bladder cancer. As a group, the dogs correctly chose the urine of patients with bladder cancer on 22 out of 54 occasions—an average success rate of 41 per cent compared with the 14 per cent expected by chance alone.
Sheldrake’s database contains many stories of dogs who correctly predicted appendicitis, heart attack, fainting, common-or-garden illnesses like flu and even sudden death. Val’s Support Dogs started investigating other avenues: seizure-response dogs for children, hypoglycemia-alert dogs for diabetics, and even canine help for people with emotional conditions.
Although traditional medics believe it mostly has to do with smell, a heightened sense of smell doesn’t account for where animals have made these predictions long distance.
As Sheldrake says, it may be closer to the same information source that helps pets read their owners’ thoughts and intentions—a non-local clue from The Field.
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