New Study Finds That Dogs Can Smell Seizures Before They Start
Is there anything these good boys and girls can't do?
It’s amazing the ways that dogs can help people with health issues that are invisible to the human eye. (If you saw Netflix’s heartwarming documentary, Dogs, you know there are very good boys who are trained to help little girls with epilepsy by doing amazing things, such as barking to alert her family when she’s experiencing an unexpected seizure.) But now, a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports says that not only can dogs spot a seizure by recognizing what it looks like while it’s happening, they can also smell it before it even begins.
In 1998, Roger Reep, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Physiological Sciences at the University of Florida, surveyed 77 people between the ages of 30 and 60 who had epilepsy, and found that about 10 percent claimed that their dogs seemed to know when a seizure was about to take place. But the evidence was purely anecdotal—until now.
Amélie Catala, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Rennes in France, decided to test whether or not a person’s body odor changes when they are about to have a seizure and, if so, whether or not dogs could detect this smell and be trained to recognize what it means.
Five neutered dogs who were trained to detect the bodily odors of patients with different diseases or disorders were given breath and sweat samples from epileptic patients when they were going through a seizure, in calm state, or engaged in sports. The results showed that seizures are, indeed, associated with a particular body odor, which the dogs were able to detect with impressive accuracy. Two of the dogs were able to detect the seizure odor with 67 percent accuracy, and three of them were actually correct 100 percent of the time.
“The results went beyond our expectations by showing that there is indeed a general odor of an epileptic seizure,” Catala told AFP. “We hope it will open new lines of research that could help anticipate seizures and thus get patients to seek security.”
A spokeswoman for the charity Epilepsy Action said that while further research is necessary, this study provides what is perhaps the first real scientific evidence that dogs can be trained to predict seizures.
“We still don’t know whether they do that by smell or some other sense,” she told The Guardian. “So this research is interesting and could be a next step in understanding how dogs can further support people living with uncontrolled epilepsy.”
If the idea that dogs can “smell” seizures sounds a bit far-fetched to you, it’s worth noting that scientists have already confirmed that dogs can can detect other diseases—like lung and breast cancer—purely by their scent while the disease is still in its early stages.
They can also detect when the blood sugar levels of someone suffering from diabetes is dipping dangerously low. Dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their snoots, compared to only six million in human noses. According to James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, that means that dogs are “10,000 times better” at smelling than we are.
“If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well,” he told PBS.
So, yes, they really are that amazing. And for more proof that they can help us emotionally just as much as they can physically, check out the 15 Life Lessons You Can Learn From Your Dog.
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