Nature's Doctors

From disease sniffers to therapeutic cuddle buddies, animals have been shown to possess a natural gift for healing the body and the mind.


    Theodore the kangaroo hops for mental health

    Of all the therapists at the Silverado Senior Living community in Salt Lake City, Utah, Theodore, a 1-year-old kangaroo, plays the most unique role in caring for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia. By interacting with Theo, residents of the community have become more alert, active and more engaged in life - all crucial components for Alzheimer's care. Theodore’s only job is to hop around in his diaper and let Silverado’s residents love him, which keeps them connected to the world. Silverado’s administrator Noralyn Snow has used this animal-assisted therapy for the last decade and has also incorporated sheep, goats and pot-bellied pigs.
    Silverado Senior Living

    Giant rats detect tuberculosis in spit samples

    Move over canine, Mr. Rat is a better sniffer than you. A team of 30 trained rats – each the size of an average Chihuahua – are detecting tuberculosis in a non-profit group’s pilot project in Tanzania. APOPO collects up to 1,000 spit samples a week from local hospitals and tests them for tuberculosis using both microscopic analysis and – well – rats. The detection rats, who have an excellent sense of smell, often sniff out what the microscopes miss and have improved disease detection by 44 percent. The rats simply scratch the testing tray floor when they smell a sample with the infectious disease, allowing them to screen 40 every seven minutes, whereas a human with a microscope can only screen 40 samples a day. But these rats aren’t just one trick ponies; APOCO also trains the team of African giant pouched rats to sniff out land mines. Tuberculosis kills two million people worldwide every year with most deaths occurring in Asia and Africa, according to the Mayo Clinic website.

    Oscar the cat is a harbinger of death

    Cats aren’t known for their social behavior. In fact, their selfish behavior has often been noted. But Oscar, a 6-year-old feline who was adopted and grew up in the Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Rhode Island, began curling up against terminally ill patients just hours before their death. Staff observed this phenomenon in 25 cases and soon began alerting the family members of patients who Oscar chose to snuggle up to. "Many family members take some solace from it. They appreciate the companionship that the cat provides for their dying loved one," said Dr. David Dosa, a geriatrician and assistant professor of medicine at Brown University. Dosa recounts Oscar's story in a book released this past February called Making Rounds with Oscar - The Extraordinary Gift from an Ordinary Cat.

    Kiko the dog bites off owner's infected toe

    In early August, a little terrier named Kiko chewed through and ate his owner’s big toe. Kiko knew something no one else did. His owner, Jerry Douthett of Rockford, Mich., had an infection and a dangerously high blood sugar level of 560. He was rushed to the hospital and doctors took over where Kiko left off, amputating the rest of Douthett’s toe. In the process, they discovered he had type 2 diabetes, which had caused the infection. Douthett’s wife, Rosee, had been urging him to get tested for diabetes, but he resisted because his brother had died just a few years earlier from complications related to the disease. But Douthett never made it to be tested before passing out at his home from alcohol consumption. When he finally woke up, blood was everywhere, and he was on his way to the hospital. Kiko gave him the push - or rather the bite - he needed. He now has Kiko to thank for saving his life. Although Kiko wasn’t trained, he was able to detect Douthett's high blood sugar because dogs have an extremely sensitive sense of smell. Compared to the 50 million olfactory receptors in the human nose, dogs have 220 million.

    Shepherd dogs sniff out cancer

    Much like blood sugar, cancer cells seem to produce an odor, which dogs can recognize and the most recent study to test their sniffing ability has more good news. French researchers trained Belgian Malinois Shepherd dogs to detect prostate cancer in urine samples. They placed groups of five urine samples in front of the dogs. One sample out of each group belonged to a man with prostate cancer and the dogs were able to correctly identify 63 out of 66 specimens. The researchers presented their findings to the American Urological Association and are already training more dogs. Other studies have produced similar results in which dogs were trained to detect bladder cancer using urine samples. In addition, breath tests have been used to uncover breast, skin, ovarian and lung cancer - all with varying degrees of success. A small study by a California clinic used breath samples from 86 people with cancer (55 had lung cancer, 31 had breast cancer) and 83 healthy volunteers. They presented the samples, kept in numbered tubes, to five dogs, five at a time. The dogs identified 99 percent of the samples correctly.

    Spinner dolphins aid addictive behaviors

    Swimming with Hawaiian spinner dolphins in their natural habitat may be beneficial for those battling alcohol and drug addictions, according to Hawaiian Island Recovery, a rehabilitation center. Dolphin-assisted psychotherapy reportedly addresses the underlying mental health issues often associated with addictive behaviors, such as self control and communication. Because dolphins share so many similarities to humans, including a complex social structure and wide range of emotions – the belief is that interacting with them will provide insights for those struggling with addiction. Dolphins have also been used as a therapy for children with autism and adults with PTSD. The Hawaiian spinner dolphin is one of four subspecies found in off-shore tropical waters in various parts of the world. 

    Dogs help ease effects of war

    Sgt. Tony Larson, who was wounded in Iraq in 2005, was teamed up with service dog Tomme in April 2007.  He spent 18 months in rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center for injuries that included the loss of his right leg below the knee, mild traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Tomme has been trained to provide balance assistance, retrieval, and emotional support. He senses when Tony's in a depressive state or having a flashback, and puts his head or front paws on Tony's lap to help bring him back. VetDogs, a not-for-profit organization founded by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind , has also taught its service dogs a special command that veterans with PTSD can use so the dog takes them away from crowds or finds a door outside. Click here for more information about VetDogs.
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