Disease detection just one way dogs are beneficial to humans

Studies have found substantial positive outcomes of dog ownership among the homeless, including reduced drug use, avoiding arrests and companionship.  |  Getty Images

Dogs bring many benefits to our lives, several of which I explored in my previous column.

On farms, dogs herd sheep and cattle and protect livestock from predators. Working dogs assist people with disabilities and improve public safety in police departments across Canada.

Dogs also enhance society in less obvious roles.

Disease detective dogs are trained to identify hard-to-diagnose diseases in people, as medical professionals have begun to recognize and capitalize on some of their unique abilities. Using their highly adapted sense of smell, dogs have been trained to accurately identify people with cancer of the ovaries, bladder, breast and other organs.

Cliff, a Dutch medical superstar who happens to be a beagle, is the world’s first bacteria-sniffing canine. He is trained to detect Clostridium difficile, a bacterium that causes severe diarrhea and is especially concerning in hospitals situations, where it can spread easily among patients. Cliff walks among the hospital wards and sits or lays down beside those people that are infected.

In a pilot study, researchers found that Cliff was over 90 percent accurate at detecting C. difficile infection in people. The advantage of having a dog like Cliff in hospitals is he can detect patients with C. difficile up to three days before confirmatory testing is available, allowing for protective measures to be put in place to reduce the chance of it spreading.

Homeless people and their animals in Ontario are benefiting from the charity, Community Veterinary Outreach (CVO). This organization provides education and basic preventive health care to animals owned by homeless and street-involved people in Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo and Toronto.

Founded by Dr. Michelle Lem in 2003, CVO has generated a number of important findings about the benefit of pet ownership for people. For instance, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare examined the effects of companion animal ownership on street-involved youth. Lem and colleagues scratched the surface of the complex relationship between street youth and their pets. They found that street youth consistently put their pets before themselves and identified a few drawbacks to pet ownership.

Many of these pet owners were unwilling to give up their pets to move into non-pet friendly shelters or housing. Also, some youth described being unable to gain employment due to inability to secure animal care during their shifts. Substantial positive outcomes of pet ownership included reduced drug use, avoiding arrests and companionship.

CVO only serves clients that have been referred from partner organizations such as community health clinics, shelters, public health, and mental health organizations. These volunteer-run veterinary clinics occur every few months in the communities they serve. An interesting benefit of providing health care to pets is that CVO has started to foster connections for homeless people to access support services, such as health care, social work and housing.

Therapy dogs have become an increasingly common sight and now frequent such places as senior citizen homes, airports, emergency rooms and educational institutions. It sure is nice to meet a dog after a sojourn through airport security.

In Canada, St. John’s Ambulance certifies therapy dogs and handlers that meet a rigid set of criteria. Across the country, there are more than 3,000 dogs that visit more than 100,000 people annually. People who might not otherwise interact with animals have the opportunity to pet, talk to and otherwise connect with the therapy dogs (and their handlers). Besides a healthy dose of warm fuzzies, people who meet with therapy dogs are thought to have lower stress, distraction from pain and other problems, and increased social engagement. Kids who read to therapy dogs seem to benefit from the non-judgmental acceptance that dogs are so good at providing.

The use and acceptance of dogs in society will only continue to grow as these types of human-dog activities become more mainstream and their benefits are recognized.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc, PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Twitter: @JRothenburger

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