Breath Analysis, an Exciting New Frontier for Medicine, but old News to Dogs…

Breath Analysis, an Exciting New Frontier for Human Medicine, but it’s Nothing New to Dogs…

I was listening to a fascinating Ted Talk podcast yesterday about the medical marvel that is breath analysis. Together with the advancement of smartphones, it’s going to revolutionise medicine. However, but in terms of sniffing out disease, dogs got there first.

Speed of diagnosis is absolutely critical to how well you are going to survive a serious illness. Thus tests that detect hidden diseases very early on are the Excalibur of the modern health industry. Ideally, these tests would be quick, cheap to both produce and turn around and definitive. Enter breath analysis.

In short, your exhaled breath contains all the usual CO2 and Nitrogen etc but also a whole host of volatile and non-volatile organic compounds, end-products of metabolic processes. They form the basis of the breathalysers cops use to bust your drunk ass when driving.

However, it thought that it can be used for much more than just alcohol. The composition of compounds you exhale can be used to detect disease, something we’ve known for thousands of years but are only just getting around to investigating more.

So now they’re going around collecting thousands and thousands of samples of breaths of all types of people – young, old, different ethnicities, from healthy to varying states of sickness, from all over the globe, to build a database. Over time, the bigger this gets the more accurate and proficient the diagnosis is going to be. And all you will have to do is puff into a tiny device that you plug into your phone to see how you’re doing. Very exciting.

Rudimentary versions are already available in fact. Asides digital breathalysers on Amazon that work with your smartphone, you might have seen a new gadget that was premiered on the Late Late some weeks ago? It measured the VOC’s from your breath and told you about your digestion? Might be handy for folk that suffer issues there.

But this just the start of it. All diseases involve the metabolism so they all must give off some form of a pong. Already, they are detecting diabetes, kidney disease, TB and of course lung cancer.

But Dogs Have Been Smelling our Diseases for Years…

In 2006, McCulloch et al. demonstrated that dogs could be trained to detect both lung and breast cancer in subjects at various stages of the disease. What’s more, they did with almost 100% accuracy, merely by smelling the subject’s breath.

But it doesn’t stop there. I remember when I was training Guide Dogs, we got a call from one of our pup raisers (they rear and train the dog during the first 14-18mths of her life). They told us that their pup, without any prior teaching whatsoever, had begun to alert them when their child was about to have a hypoglycemic (extremely low blood sugar) and slip into diabetic shock, a highly dangerous situation. It happened the child once before and that was the pup needed to link the smell of ketones (very fruity smell, you can smell them even with your terrible nose from someone that is very far along) to serious drama concerning her best buddy. The next time it happened, this amazing dog ran into the sitting room and nuzzled the owner. Thinking the dog needed the toilet, she went into the kitchen to let ler out but the dog ran over to the kitchen table and started barking. Her child had slumped down from her homework to the floor. She never would have seen her. Amazing. There is a fantastic group now in the UK called HypoHounds that train dogs specifically for this purpose.

What other diseases can dogs smell? Well, this guardian piece gives reference to dogs smelling prostate and colorectal cancers from stool samples but also detecting malaria from your socks and soon possibly soon Parkinsons.

For anyone that hasn’t seen this video yet, I highly recommend checking out this video by the legend that is Alexandra Horowitz, dog cognitive behaviour specialist and author of the #1 New York Times bestseller “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know“, available on Amazon. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend checking it out, it’s cheap to buy but incredibly insightful.

Dr. Conor Brady

After a doctorate studying the effects of nutrition on the behaviour and gut morphology of animals, five years with Guide Dogs as a trainer and supervisor, some success on Dragons Den with the finest raw dog food company and the last few years both writing and speaking on canine nutrition and health, I can say with some confidence that the pet food and drug industry cares not a jot for the health of your pet.
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