10 Amazing Ways Dogs Have Helped Advance Medicine

Beloved for their loyalty, playfulness, and warm companionship, dogs provide humanity with friendship and entertainment, also acting as a much-needed source of unconditional love. But these fuzzy friends do far more for mankind than most people realized. Medical science benefits extensively from studying their physiology and temporary and chronic pains as well. Much of the research used today began its life as inquiries into canine functionality and behavior – and in experimental veterinary procedures. Humanity owes as much of a debt of gratitude to the animals (and their owners!) that contributed to the progression of medicine as the innovative doctors and scientist themselves who found ways to apply their findings from one species to another. Their initiative and sacrifices have helped to save lives and ease the pain of life with chronic or temporary illnesses and conditions – without them, many humans and animals alike would continue to suffer, even die before attaining a long, healthy life.

1. Cancer Research

The October 2009 article “The Comparative Oncology Trials Consortium: Using Spontaneously Occurring Cancers in Dogs to Inform the Cancer Drug Development Pathway” appearing in the journal PLoS Medicine and written by several researchers from the National Cancer Institute takes a peek into how canine animal companions can open up new insights into how the disease can be discovered and treated. Around 1 million dogs in the United States alone suffer from some form of cancer, which typically receive the same treatment as their human counterparts. In both dogs and people, surgery, radiation, medication, and chemotherapy are all used to alleviate the signs and symptoms of cancer to varying degrees of success. Many of the tumors that grow in other animals share a number of similarities with those found in humans, which has as of late piqued quite a bit of interest in the medical community. Because of this, dogs make for ideal candidates when it comes to experimental cancer treatments that could prove more beneficial to all victims of the disease – and many pet owners react with eagerness to help out their fellow man by allowing their beloved animals to take part in these trial runs. They also allow for oncologists to save the tumors and expired bodies as a means of better studying how to prevent cancer from spreading or even halt the process altogether. In 2007, the United States Department of Agriculture issued a conditional license for a vaccine that aids in the treatment of Stage 3 and 4 oral melanoma in dogs.

2. Therapy Animals

Much attention has been rightfully paid to therapy animals as of late, most especially dogs. Organizations such as Therapy Dogs International, Therapy Dogs United, Canine Assisted Therapy, and many, many more provide the elderly, incapacitated, handicapped, depressed, and other people with animal companions to boost their overall mood and health. Some, such as dogs and capuchins, can even help with some basic chores to help owners who suffer from difficulty of motion. Associating with these gentle, well-trained animals through petting, playing, and teaching them how to do tricks has proven in a wide variety of studies to grant improved responses, more agreeable moods, lower heart rates, and assistance in physical therapy – as discussed in this National Geographic article. Therapy animals can either live with their owners or work in nursing homes, hospitals, hospices, and other convalescent facilities, but either way they function in more or less the same capacity. The article uses a golden retriever, Bo, as an example of one that comes to visit patients in the AIDS and cardiac wards at Ceders-Sinai at Los Angeles. He brings them plenty of joy to quell some of the pain and loneliness that live in a hospital can sadly entail.

3. Batten Disease Research

Researchers at the University of Missouri utilize Tibetan Terriers as therapy animals and for their extremely informative DNA as well. A pure specimen of the breed (and others as well) can serve as a carrier for ceroid lipofuscinosis (CL), with symptoms affecting vision, balance, and motion and potentially causing seizures and dementia – a condition extremely similar to Batten Disease found in humans. Biological information extracted from these spunky dogs goes into the Tibetan Terrier DNA Bank hosted at the University of Missouri in order to help create genetic tests and find suitable methods to curb or cure the toll that both diseases take on the body. Owners with dogs ravaged by the later stages of CL sometimes allow the University to study how it comes to affect a live specimen, cooperating in spite of the heartbreak in order to help medical science progress and continue to improve lives. In addition, the school also connects many of the healthier-seeming dogs with victims of Batten Disease as a means of providing comfort, amusement, and love while they suffer from a loss of eyesight and other tragedies. These hearty Tibetan Terriers pull double duty as therapy animals and contributors of exceedingly valuable biological data, making them an exceptional example of how dogs can assist humans in pushing boundaries in medical science.

4. Sniff Out Diabetes and Cancer

Dogs of all shapes and sizes have earned plenty of praise for their ability to sniff out drug caches, explosives, cell phones, plastics, firearms, and missing or wanted persons. But many do not realize that they are also capable of detecting possible diabetic issues and some forms of cancer as well. National Geographic, CNN, and the New York Times (another article is available here) – among many others, of course – have all reported on this phenomenon. Because dogs boast far more sophisticated olfactory senses than humans, with around 20-40 more nasal receptors, experts believe they can find benzene derivatives and alkanes associated with lung and bladder cancer with an accuracy greater than the more traditional methods. Their hypersensitivity to smell can also figure out when a diabetic or hypoglycemic may succumb to an attack requiring extra sugar or insulin. When their masters or mistresses appear at risk, these amazing dogs warn them before the onset of a potentially serious or deadly condition with snuggles, licks, crying, or barking. Some experts remain skeptical of this, of course, but that does not prevent them from pursuing further studies on the subject.

5. Pavlov’s Dogs

While not always immediately connected to medical science, the studies conducted by Nobel-Prize winning scientist Ivan Pavlov are most famous for opening up a number of doors for psychologists and psychiatrists alike to better treat their patients – with or without pills, powders, or procedures such as electroshock. However, Pavlov’s extensive work with dogs influenced far more than the mental health profession. He would also examine their physiology in great depth, revolutionizing humanity’s understanding how the circulatory system created and distributed blood. In addition, his researched explored every function of the salivary glands and their relationship to the rest of the digestive tract. In spite of these accomplishments which all rightly earned Pavlov’s international recognition, he is best known for discovering “conditioned responses.” The experiment involved the scientist ringing a bell whenever a dog was to receive food, making note of the salivary response. Over time, the animals grew to associate any ringing bell with meat, regardless of whether or not any was to come. These discoveries shed quite a bit of light on how the mind works, leading to effective and lasting treatment for many men and women suffering from mental illness.

6. Testing Anesthetics and Analgesics

Though extremely controversial and provoking significant ire amongst animal rights groups, many newer anesthetics for possible uses in humans undergo preliminary testing in dogs and other animals. The United States Department of Agriculture provides quite a bit of information on possible safety and ethical issues that veterinarians and other medical professionals who wish to administer anesthetics and analgesics really ought to consider. Much of the research does, in fact, revolve around putting them under for medical procedures. However, some discuss the use of new and experimental means of keeping animals under and numbed to great pain that may prove appropriate and valuable when it comes time to performing surgery on humans. As uncomfortable as the process may make some people, these tests – when administered as painlessly and ethically as possible, of course – help to make comfortable and save the lives of millions of people around the world in need of serious medical procedures.

7. Cloning

As with many medical procedures, cloning carries with it a number of ethical and moral concerns. When a Florida couple spent $155,000 to duplicate their deceased yellow lab, they met with a hefty barrage of criticism. Many found it a frivolous and unnecessary motion, but perfecting cloning techniques on dogs and others animals does actually carry with it some life-saving potential. One of the most common positives usually associated with the procedure – as reflected on the University of Utah’s website and elsewhere – revolves around how it benefits medical science. By understanding and better honing the cloning process, it opens the doors for scientists to duplicate organs for transplant and stem cells for reversing degenerative physical conditions. Some have even cloned livestock in order to take advantage of certain proteins with pharmacological applications. All of these genuinely aid medicine and mankind as a whole, most especially the ability to recreate healthy organs and stem cells. Doing so means that many suffering from terminal illnesses requiring an organ transplant to survive can receive a custom grown one much faster than waiting on a donor to prove a match. Cloned stem cells address the controversy of harvesting them from embryos and provide a means of applying them to damaged tissue almost immediately. So while some chide pet owners hoping to replace their beloved companions, their willingness to pay scientists for the procedure helps further the cloning procedures that could very well forever change the future of medicine for the better.

8. Brain Tumor Research

The College of Veterinary Medicine at University of Minnesota also happens to host a comparative oncology program, as one of their hosted articles discusses. Though their focus ostensibly revolves around the care and well-being of other animals, much of what the University students, faculty, and staff learn along the way also has applications for human medicine as well. For example, the article tells the story of one German shepherd with a debilitating, possibly terminal, brain tumor that came across the University’s operating table. With the owner’s permission, Dr. John Ohlfest and Dr. G. Elizabeth Pluhar applied an experimental technique comprised of three major waves – removing the tumor, gene therapy treatment on the surgical site, and the administration of an anti-cancer vaccine. It thankfully proved extremely beneficial, furthering the dog’s life and reducing the potential for another brain tumor to form. Though it needs more time to streamline and perfect, Ohlfest and Pluhar both remain completely enthused about their technique – and not only for their canine patients. Both of them pull from their background in comparative oncology in order to seek out ways to apply their method to brain tumors in humans as well. An experimental vaccine did result from the studies, but the cost and difficulties in production proved a staggering roadblock. However, the doctors still remain positive about the situation – especially since the failed human vaccine resulted in a more effective one for dogs. They continue to voice hope that their successful surgeries and vaccines to tread brain tumors in dogs will very soon quell the physical and emotional suffering of humans with the tragic condition.

9. Dermatology Research

University of Minnesota also seeks out dogs for clinical trials involving dermatitis and other skin conditions. As with their oncology research, they hope to find points of commonality between instances of atopic dermatitis in dogs and those in humans with the goal of finding effective treatments or cures for both. This red, itchy, flaky, skin condition, along with eczema, can only really be soothed and minimized as opposed to outright cured – and both remain rather common conditions in both dogs and humans. A 1997 article from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the Department of Clinical Sciences of Companion Animals in Utrecht, The Netherlands discusses the structure of atopic dermatitis in dogs and makes note of its similarities to cases found in humans as well. They believe that the two can be used as almost interchangeable models, and that treatment options that work for one may very well have applications that can easily be adapted to the other.

10. Orthopedics Research

University of Wisconsin – Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine works in conjunction with the UWM Medical School’s Sports Medicine Program to develop orthopedic procedures and prosthetics that benefit both dogs and people. Noting the similarities between cases of arthritis, stress fractures, and other conditions in animals (specifically, dogs and horses) and their human counterparts, the two departments tag-team the problems that crop up in all three species and find ways to adapt the treatments to each physiology. Some of what UWM’s veterinary and sports medicine departments have worked on in the past includes ACL ruptures, stress fractures, augmented fractures, and shoulder injuries. Each case that comes in gets evaluated not only for the animal involved, but how the experimental or routine procedures used to address their issues can be applied to other species – including humans – as well. Everyone benefits from their dedicated research, most especially individuals suffering from temporary bone, ligament, tendon, and muscle injuries or chronic conditions impairing their movement and functionality.

Beyond the usual love heaped upon dogs for the amazing ways they bring joy and light to people’s days – even saving their lives in dire situations – they also play an integral role in daily life in more subtle ways as well. Medical science (when behaving ethically, of course) can look into their regular functions and reactions to diseases as a means of learning not only how veterinarians can better treat their patients, but doctors who work on humans as well. The dogs and their owners who submit to tests and trials by hardworking doctors ought to be commended for helping to further the cause of medicine and save the lives and preserve the overall well-being of man and beast alike.

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