Dogs have been known as man’s best friend for thousands of years, and it’s well known that they’ve even saved countless human lives. They make us laugh, they comfort us and they protect us. They’ve been used in law enforcement and military employment to therapy and service work. But did you know that a canine companion can even sense when their beloved pet parent is about to have a stroke?
Dogs have been known to sense all sorts of illnesses including cardiac events, like strokes. The American Heart Association (AHA) even found that people living alone with a dog had a 27% better chance of surviving a stroke than those living alone.
Below we will explore how your pup can sense a stroke using their powerful snouts and other factors.
Signs of a Dog Sensing a Stroke in a Person
Sensing a stroke is a pretty unique super power, and something that not all dogs are able to do. Even if they are able to sense it, they may not always alert their pet parent or know how to react. It really depends on factors like your dog’s ability, the bond your pupper has with you, and even the type of stroke. Dog breeds with longer snouts, like dogs in the hound or shepherd families, generally have a better sense of smell and are more likely to have this skill.
Cardiac Service Dogs are dogs that already have this innate ability, and have been trained to exhibit specific signs when their human is having a stroke. A Cardiac Alert Service Dog can be trained to let their pet parent know before the stroke happens, or make other family members aware. It’s best if they’re trained to show a specific, consistent sign. Sometimes they’ll even lay down near their human to prevent them from hurting themselves if they fall! A Cardiac Response Service Dog is helpful after the stroke has already happened, and they can be trained to do things like call emergency services, fetch medication, and more.
Even if your pup isn’t trained, there’s a chance that they will try to alert you in their own way. It could be in any way pawsible, but it will likely be in one of the ways listed below.
History of Dogs Sensing Strokes in People
It seems like anecdotes of dogs detecting medical problems and heroically saving their humans have always been around. But it’s only truly been studied in more recent history. The first recorded evidence of a dog smelling a disease was in 1989, when a pup was sniffing and biting at a woman’s mole that turned out to be melanoma. In 2004, it was discovered that dogs could sniff out bladder cancer in someone’s urine. Since then, more research has gone into looking at how dogs could be used to diagnose other things like strokes, epilepsy, diabetes, malaria, and even COVID-19. Today, Medical Alert Dogs are common and there are many institutions dedicated to training them.
While there still is some skepticism about whether dogs are actually able sense when someone is about to have a stroke, there are plenty of true stories that seem to support it. Eric, the miniature red poodle, is a trained Cardiac Service Dog that saved his owner from a stroke in 2013. When Eric’s pet parent Edward was visiting a friend, Eric began to paw at his leg. When Edward didn’t react, Eric jumped onto his lap and thumped his head into his chest, which was the sign Eric was trained to perform. Edward quickly left and things took a turn for the worse. He started having more stroke symptoms, but fortunately his wife got him to the emergency department just in time. Without the help of his faithful fur-baby Eric, Edward likely would not be alive today.
Dogs may not be reliable enough to use for diagnoses in a clinical setting, but scientists are very excited about what this means for the future of medicine.
Science Behind Dogs Sensing Strokes in People
There are different theories about whether dogs use their strong sense of smell or sense of hearing to detect a cardiac event in a person. What we do know is that a dog's nose can smell up to 100,000 times better than ours. Their noses are also unique because they have a special organ, the vomeronasal organ, that helps them identify pheromones that animals give out to communicate with others.
To a dog, humans are pretty smelly creatures. We regularly emanate volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, through our breath and bodily fluids. These VOCs change when we’re sick, because our cell metabolism changes. This means that your furry friend will actually notice that you smell a little different when you’re sick.
Some dogs are so sensitive to this that they can actually recognize the chemical alterations that occur when our blood pressure or heart rate changes. It’s also possible that they use their strong hearing skills to recognize if their human’s heart rate changed.
There are other animals that have a strong enough sense of smell to be able to do this too, like elephants, bears, or sharks, but it’s obvious why dogs are the better choice for the role. Doggos have a strong desire to please and communicate with their two-legged besties.
Training Your Dog to Sense Strokes in People
Un”fur”tunately, being able to sense a stroke and having the desire to communicate it is something your pup either has or they don’t. It’s an innate ability, and they need to do it from their own initiative, not by command. This is why it can be a challenge to find and train a Cardiac Service Dog.
If your skillful canine does have the potential to be fully trained as a certified Cardiac Service Dog, look for a training centre near you. A qualified dog trainer can help encourage reliable warnings. The end goal is for your dog to be able to sense a stroke minutes before it happens so the person would be able to call for help. These service doggos are great for anyone who has already suffered a stroke or has a high probability of suffering a stroke.
One method that’s used in cardiac service dog training is the swab technique. For this method, you need two swabs. One should be soaked in a person’s saliva while their heart rate and blood pressure are normal. The other should be soaked in the person's saliva when their heart rate or blood flow changes, or any cardiac symptoms occur. Then you can get your dog to smell both swabs, and use them to train your dog to notify you with a signal like barking or pawing when you’re about to have a cardiac event. This technique takes tons of practice, but it’s an amazing skill for your best pal to have! It may even save your life.
Written by Jasmine Sawatzky
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 09/27/2022, edited: 09/27/2022