Animals who make a difference

Doctors, nurses, support workers, therapists — and animals? When it comes to better health, not all members of the team walk on two legs. Animals are increasingly becoming a part of therapies designed to help both the body and the mind — not to mention how we diagnose and manage disease.

We’re used to seeing dogs with jobs (such as police dogs or guide dogs) but there are more ways animals are improving the health and well being of their human companions:

Sounding the alarm

A drop in blood pressure can be dangerous for people living with type 1 diabetes, but not everyone can recognize the symptoms of these hypoglycaemic episodes — especially if they’re asleep when they happen. Enter the nose: dogs can detect a change in body chemistry and alert their human companions about a drop in blood glucose levels before things get serious. Dogs warn with behaviours like pawing, nudging, pacing or putting their heads in an owner’s lap — or they might wake people up in the middle of the night with a testing kit in their jaws.

In the past several years, more organizations are training dogs to recognize changes in blood glucose levels, and pairing them up with adults and children to help manage the disease. (Read the article in Diabetes Forecast for more information.)

Another example of this canine early warning system: dogs can warn people who suffer from frequent seizures when one is going to happen. This advanced notice allows people the time to lie down or get to a safe area in time.

Screening for cancer

You’ve heard the joke involving a “lab test” from a retriever? The breed may be wrong but the logic isn’t that far fetched. Scientists continue to investigate how dogs can sniff out some forms of cancer — or rather, the by-products of cancerous cells. These diseased cells release different “waste products” than normal cells, and these substances are released through our skin, breath and urine. With their keen noses, dogs can be trained to detect these biochemical markers — even in the earliest stages of disease.

For example, n 2006 researchers at Florida State University found that dogs could detect the disease in breath samples from patients who had breast cancer or lung cancer. (See Doctor Dog for details.) In 2008, scientists in Philadelphia found that dogs can detect skin cancer based on chemicals emitted by the skin. Dogs have also showed promise in detecting bladder cancer from smelling urine. (For the full story, see WebMD. )

More recently, a small French study reported that dogs can detect prostate tumours — or rather, a molecule produced by them — with a higher degree of accuracy than controversial PSA tests. A 2011 study found that dogs could detect a lung cancer tumour in about 70 per cent of patients.

While much of this research is still in its early stages, scientists hope that they can use their findings to develop faster and more accurate tests.


Offering comfort

It’s a win-win situation: pets love the attention, and people benefit from some snuggle time and unconditional love. The health benefits of pets are well known, so it’s no surprise they’re welcome guests in long term care facilities, children’s health centres, mental health facilities and hospitals. Patients who get regular visits from furry friends have a better quality of life, they sleep and eat better, they’re more social and participate in more activities. Another bonus: you’ll see more smiles on their faces.

Dogs are even going to school. In recent years, colleges and universities like the University of Waterloo and York University have been inviting therapy dogs to campus to help stressed out students cope with exams.

Of course, dogs aren’t the only ones making the rounds. We don’t often hear about cats with jobs, but felines and their owners are also an important part of pet therapy programs.

(For more information, visit the St. John Ambulance: Therapy Dog Services and Therapeutic Paws of Canada websites.)

Building the body and the brain

Horseback riding isn’t just a leisure activity. For people with physical disabilities, it can be an important way to improve muscle tone, balance and coordination. This specialized form of physiotherapy — known as hippotherapy — uses horses as means to help with rehabilitation.

The benefits of this treatment aren’t just physical. Horses provide a freedom as well as a sense of independence and achievement. A related therapy known as therapeutic riding builds on these other objectives, and includes all aspects of horseback riding from animal care to learning how to ride. Participants have the chance to learn new skills, work with others and even find employment.

For more information about programs, visit the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association (CanTRA) and Equine Canada.

Visit a local school or library and you might just find some furry friends enjoying a good story too.

Many communities have reading buddy programs like the “PAWS for a Story” where children build their confidence and literacy skills by reading to a non-judgemental audience. Pets make the environment more relaxing and make reading out loud less intimidating — and what better way to develop a love of books than with a furry friend?

Reading isn’t the only skill children can develop. One organization, COPE Service Dogs, enlists the help of at-risk youth to help train service dogs — all while earning credit towards their diploma. Such programs foster responsibility, empathy and leadership skills. In Canada and the U.S., prison inmates can also participate in puppy raising and training programs as well, helping with rehabilitation.

Opening up the world

For children with autism, animals can help open up the world. In recent years, animal-assisted therapy involving horses, dolphins, dogs and cats has shown many benefits for children for whom this condition affects communication and socialization. Children “open up” when animals are around, and pets offer opportunities to interact with other humans too.

Outside the sessions, dogs can offer permanent support to children with autism and their families. Specially trained Autism Service Dogs go everywhere — including family outings and to school. When connected by a tether to their companion, the dogs prevent children from bolting and thereby offer a measure of safety and security for families. Furthermore, an animal’s soothing presence can help keep outbursts in check — and help the child transition to different environments and activities. Dogs can also help improve attention span too.

For more information, see National Service Dogs and PACCK Foundation.


Perhaps the animals get all the attention — and the well-earned applause — but people make these programs possible. Government funding and grants can help, but it’s usually up to volunteers and donors to cover the costs. Here are some ways you can get involved:

Donate money. Cash contributions help cover the costs of raising and training animals, especially when the recipient families are only able to cover part of the expenses.

Donate time. Love animals? Training centres often need volunteers for some one-on-one time with the animals, including walking, grooming and baby-sitting. Extra hands are always needed for fundraising and special events too.

Raise an animal. Until they start training, animals are raised by volunteers who are responsible for house training, basic obedience and socialization. These commitments take a lot of time, patience, displine and love and can last over a year.

Volunteer with your pet. Your pet doesn’t have to have years of training to be a therapy pet — just good manners, proper hygiene and an affectionate disposition. (You may have to obtain the proper certifications to work with some organizations, however.)

There are many organizations, events and programs out there — but it may take a little research to find the right fit in your area. Sites like offer a good starting place, or try your city’s website or volunteer centre.

Is there a pet-related program or service you’d like to tell others about? Please share with us in the comments.

Photo © Susan H. Smith

10 myths about your pet
Staying healthy through the ages
Puppy-proof your home and garden