8 Surprising Ways Pets Save Lives

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Cats can help stave off depression and isolation, and dogs motivate you to walk more -- that's old news. But did you know there are some much more significant ways that having a pet can protect you from serious illness and help you live longer?

Life-saving pets: Dogs that warn diabetics

People who live with diabetes are vulnerable to collapse from low blood sugar, which can lead to coma. Death is a risk, too: According to Dogs4Diabetics, between 2 and 6 percent of type 1 diabetics will die from low blood sugar. And every time a diabetic's glucose level is out of control, permanent organ damage can result.

Enter diabetes service dogs, also known as diabetes alert dogs. These pooches are trained to retrieve phones, fetch and carry objects such as bottles of juice, test breath for glucose, and even act as an arm rail for someone who's fallen down. Diabetes dogs are paired with diabetics of all ages, but kids and teens with type 1 diabetes are considered particularly strong candidates because they become hypoglycemic more easily.

How do diabetes dogs do it? Dogs have such a highly developed sense of smell that they can detect a wide variety of chemical changes in the blood that affect scent. Trainers who work with diabetes dogs claim that a well-trained dog can detect blood sugar drops and elevations with 85-90 percent accuracy far earlier than diabetes test kits, allowing diabetics to bring blood sugar under control before experiencing symptoms. Impressed with these results, in 2010 the Mayo Clinic incorporated an alert dog into its facility.

Takeaway tip: Several organizations, such as Dogs4Diabetics , Can Do Canines, and 4 Paws for Ability are best known for training dogs especially for this role. To qualify for one of these service dogs, diabetes patients must go through a lengthy application and training process.

Life-saving pets: Dogs that help veterans

Service dogs are finding a new purpose as companions to veterans sidelined by disabilities, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI). One of the saddest legacies of recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq is the number of veterans returning home with PTSD or brain injuries they're unlikely to ever fully recover from. According to Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans (IAVA), more than 200,000 U.S. service members have been diagnosed with a brain injury in the last 10 years, and tens of thousands more suffer from PTSD.

Because the deep psychic wounds of PTSD and the physical symptoms of chronic TBI are invisible, the returning veterans face misunderstanding from their families, disrespect from the general public, and prejudice from potential employers, leaving them isolated, alone, and prone to despair. As a result, the Veterans Administration says, more than 6,500 veterans commit suicide every year -- more than the total number of soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq combined since the wars began.

Trainers who work with guide dogs for the blind quickly realized that service dogs could be of particular use to veterans, and nonprofit organizations have sprung up to train dogs to open doors, fetch and carry, and respond with comfort when a vet experiences a panic attack or flashback.

Takeaway tip: If you or someone you know is a veteran who could benefit from a service dog, contact Pets for Vets, Hero Dogs, VetDogs, Freedom Dogs, or a similar local nonprofit to apply. Some of these organizations, such as Pets for Vets, work specifically with shelter dogs, providing a double service in finding new homes for unwanted dogs.

Life-saving pets: Cats and dogs that find cancer

You've heard of drug-sniffing dogs; now come cancer-sniffing dogs. In the past decade, scientists have been studying dogs to see if they can detect the presence of tumors before conventional tests do. The answer, according to numerous recent studies, is yes. Specially trained dogs have been found to know by smell when someone has lung, colon, or even skin cancer. The most recent research on cancer-detecting dogs, published in the European Respiratory Journal in 2011, found that four trained dogs were able to detect cancer in 71 of 100 samples from lung cancer patients. Meanwhile, when given samples from the breath of people known not to have lung cancer, the dogs had a "false positive" ratio of just 7 percent.

Another study, this one in Japan, found that dogs could detect colon cancer with close to 90 percent accuracy using both breath and stool samples, while a study in Cambridge, England, is testing if dogs can detect prostate cancer from urine samples. And a dermatologist in Tallahassee, Florida, has conducted experiments to see if bomb-sniffing dogs can also detect melanoma, finding in his informal trials that they have 99 percent accuracy. Experts don't know exactly how dogs know when someone has cancer, but they suspect that dogs, with their keen sense of smell, are able to detect subtle changes in volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that function as chemical signatures in the body.

Cats have also been known to alert their owners to breast cancer and lung cancer, though the reports so far are just anecdotal and no studies have confirmed them. In one case reported by the CBC news in Winnipeg, Canada, a newly arrived stray cat jumped repeatedly against a woman's chest until she had her doctor check her for breast cancer, at which point it turned out she had a tiny tumor in the exact spot the cat had indicated.

Takeaway tip: There's not one among us who doesn't fear cancer and wouldn't appreciate an early warning system. Ask at your local hospital or cancer center whether studies with cancer-sniffing dogs are in progress and offer to participate.

Life-saving pets: Parrots that raise the alarm

There are no official studies to cite, but there are stories, lots of stories. Owners of parrots, cockatiels, and other birds have credited their beloved pets with sounding the alarm when their owners had a stroke, choked, or were in danger from fire or thieves. When a Colorado toddler started choking on a Pop-Tart, the family's pet parrot started screaming and repeating the words "mama baby" over and over, bringing the babysitter to the rescue, she reported to the local news channel. In Essex, England, a 17-year-old cockatiel named Budgie saved his owner by alerting the owner's wife when he suffered a stroke, according to the Daily Telegraph. Local news in Fort Smith, Arkansas, had a field day with the story of a pet macaw named Charlie, who screamed bloody murder and bit intruders who'd attacked his owner in an effort to steal the painkiller hydrocodone. A Muncie, Indiana, parrot named Peanut made headlines when he imitated the sound of the fire alarm that went off in the early hours of the morning. It was his squawking, rather than the alarm, that woke the resident up so he could save his son -- and Peanut -- from the burning house.

Takeaway tip: If you own a vocalizing bird yourself, train it to cry for help when startled or upset. (There are many books available on how to train different types of birds, or you can ask at your local pet store.) And if you're out walking and hear a bird screaming in alarm from a neighboring house or apartment, check to see if all is well.

Life-saving pets: Animals that strengthen your immune system

Here's one more reason to get that puppy or kitten you've been wanting: It might help your child grow up with a stronger immune system and fewer chances of developing allergies. Recent studies show that children who grow up with pets in the house have stronger immune systems, resisting colds, flus, and infections more robustly than those who live in pet-free households. Researchers in Finland studied 397 Finnish babies and found that those who lived with a dog or -- to a lesser extent -- a cat spent fewer weeks with ear infections, coughs, or runny noses. They were also less likely to need antibiotics than infants in pet-free homes. The chief researcher, Eija Bergroth of Kuopio University Hospital, hypothesized that dirt and allergens brought in by animals are good for babies' immune systems. Meanwhile, a study in Bristol, England, documented that children who grow up on farms exposed to many types of animals are far less likely to develop allergies than other children.

Takeaway tip: If you have a cat or dog, don't worry that animals "germs" are bad for the baby.

Life-saving pets: Cats that comfort the elderly

Thanks to reports of cats' (and dogs') ability to comfort ill and lonely elders, more and more nursing homes and assisted living facilities are allowing cats or other pets, according to reports in industry newsletters.

Another reason for pets in nursing homes: Cats may be able to alert staff when a patient is terminally ill. The understanding of cats' sixth sense about impending death started with the story of one cat, Oscar, whose uncanny abilities earned him his own paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007. By the time David Dosa, MD, documented Oscar's prediction instincts, he was known to have accurately predicted more than 50 deaths. Adopted as a kitten by a nursing home to be a service companion for those with advanced dementia, Oscar was only about six months old when the staff started finding him curled up next to particular patients who then died within a few hours or days. Scientists concluded that cats like Oscar are likely responding to a pheromone that the human sense of smell can't detect.

Takeaway tip: Being permitted to bring a favorite pet can make all the difference in a senior's ability to adjust to assisted living. And those with Alzheimer's can benefit even more from the therapy of connecting with a dog or cat. When choosing residential care, be sure to ask about pet-friendly policies, which are on the rise. (Of course, seniors living alone or aging in place also benefit from the companionship of a pet.) More assisted living communities and nursing homes are also adopting cats for all the residents to enjoy, so ask about group-owned pets as well.

Life-saving pets: Dogs that calm Alzheimer's patients

Pets are therapeutic for those with Alzheimer's and dementia, experts say. According to the Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation, therapy dogs can provide important comfort, companionship, and a sense of connection for those isolated by Alzheimer's and dementia. One dog, a prizewinning golden retriever named James, has been calming residents in the dementia units at the Birmingham Green Nursing Home and Assisted Living facility for several years since he became a therapy dog after retiring from dog shows.

Mara Baun has been documenting the therapeutic effects of dogs on dementia patients at the University of Houston School of Nursing for more than a decade. According to Baun, people with dementia had fewer episodes of disorientation, wandering, and aggression when a dog was resident in the special care unit where they lived. And at the University of Nebraska, researchers found that dogs can provide relief from sundown syndrome, in which those with Alzheimer's become confused and agitated as the light changes at the end of the day.

EdithEllenFoundation shares additional insights and benefits of pet therapy for those with dementia.

Takeaway tip: If someone you love suffers from Alzheimer's or dementia, consider the companionship of a therapy dog, or scheduling visits with such a dog. And when considering placing someone in an Alzheimer's care unit, ask about the use of pet therapy.

Life-saving pets: Dogs that alert before seizures

Before 10-year-old Spencer Wyatt got his dog, Lucia, his mom had to get up every 30 minutes to check on him and keep a video camera running in her bedroom to monitor him for seizures. Spencer has epilepsy and is particularly prone to nocturnal seizures, which strike without warning while he sleeps. Today the family is much more relaxed thanks to Lucia, a specially trained seizure response dog who goes everywhere with Spencer. Lucia is just one of many service dogs who functions as an "alarm system" -- as the Epilepsy Foundation puts it -- for adults and children living with epilepsy. There isn't a lot of research yet into dogs and seizure disorder, but recently the journal Seizure published a review study showing that 9 of 29 people with epilepsy who owned dogs (or approximately 30 percent) reported that their dogs had alerted them to the onset of seizures.

There are actually two kinds of service dogs for seizure disorders: "Seizure response" dogs like Lucia alert others to their owners' seizures, while "seizure alert" or "seizure predicting" dogs are more specially trained to be on the alert for signs of an impending seizure. And of course, having a devoted dog by their side 24/7 helps those with seizure disorders feel safer and more secure.

Takeaway tip: If you already have a dog, it's possible to work with a trainer to teach your dog how to respond to a seizure, according to the Epilepsy Foundation, which offers information on seizure dogs. For a seizure alert dog, contact a qualified nonprofit organization such as Canine Assistants, the organization that trained Lucia, or 4 Paws for Ability.

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio