Animals As Carers: How Animals Help People

It is well known that animals help people in a number of different ways. People who would otherwise be lonely but who share their lives with a dog or a cat often suffer far less from illness than those who do not have an animal to talk to, play with or sit with. Stroking a cat can help reduce blood pressure. Talking to a budgerigar can help stave off depression. Watching goldfish swimming around a tank can ease anxiety. And walking the dog can help ease aching joints and improve cardiovascular fitness.

But here are some other examples of how compassionate, thoughtful, imaginative and caring animals can and do help people.

1. In their excellent book When Elephants Weep Jeffrey Masson and Susan McCarthy report how a man called John Teal, who was working with endangered musk oxen, was at first alarmed when some dogs approached and the musk oxen snorted, stamped and thundered towards him. Before Mr Teal could move to escape the oxen formed a defensive ring around him and lowered their horns at the dogs. It turned out that the musk oxen were protecting their new human friend in exactly the same way that they would protect their calves from predators.

2. The life of a man in Boston, USA was saved by his dog Belle who had been trained to call for help. The man, who was diabetic had a seizure and collapsed. The dog then bit into the unconscious man's cell phone and called the emergency services on 911.

3. Dogs can be used to help diabetic patients by using their keen sense of smell. The dogs can detect abnormalities in a diabetic's blood sugar levels. The specially trained dog periodically licked her owner’s nose to check his blood sugar level. If she was worried (could smell ketones) she would paw and whine at him until he took action to put things right. `Every time she paws at me in that way I grab my meter and test myself,' said the man. `She's never been wrong.'

4. Dogs have also been trained to detect cancer by smell. And early studies are showing impressive results. A dog's nose has 220 million cells associated with its sense of smell. Humans have just 5 million. (It is for this reason that dogs are used to sniff out drugs, explosives and human remains.) Some experts now even claim that dogs can be trained to smell cancer cells in human beings. Dr Armand Gognetta, a skin cancer specialist, has reported that a grey-haired Schnauzer called George, who has been trained to detect skin cancer cells in humans, has a success rate of nearly 100%. George was trained after a medical journal had described how another dog had kept sniffing at a particular mole on her owner's leg - ignoring a number of other moles. A biopsy had revealed that the mole which had attracted attention had been malignant.

5. Dogs have been reported to be sensitive to impending epileptic seizures. No one knows how they do this but dogs are sensitive to seizures about forty minutes before they occur. Dogs can therefore be trained to offer early warnings - enabling their owners to take the appropriate precautions for their safety.

6. Many pets know (presumably through some sixth sense such as extra sensory perception) that their owners are going to be in danger.

7. Cat owners have reported that when they are feeling ill their cat will make much of a fuss of them - purring loudly and rubbing against them when they are feeling unwell.

8. It has frequently been reported that dogs who are separated from their owners will sense when something terrible has happened. Author Sandra Collier reports that when a friend was taken seriously ill while on holiday her dogs, left at home in the care of another friend, began howling in the middle of the night. The dogs howled continuously. It was later discovered that the dogs had started howling at the moment their owner had fallen ill.

9. Writer Ernest Thompson Seton got caught in two wolf traps while working in the wilderness. At nightfall, a pack of hungry wolves gathered around him. The leader began to growl and snap at Seton who was trapped and helpless. As the wolves were about to attack, Seton's dog Bingo suddenly appeared and killed the leader of the wolf pack. Bingo then dragged a tool to Seton that enabled him to undo the traps and free himself. The really strange thing is that the dog had not been taken on Seton's expedition. At home he had whimpered and acted strangely. Eventually, despite attempts to detain him, he headed into the dark to find the endangered Seton.

10. Four New Zealanders were swimming off Ocean Beach near Whangarei on New Zealand's North Island when dolphins swam close to them in tight circles and herded them to safety. One of the swimmers, a lifesaver, tried to escape from the dolphins but was herded back into the group - just as he noticed a nine foot great white shark swimming towards the group. `The dolphins had corralled us up to protect us,' said the lifesaver. The swimmers spent the next 40 minutes surrounded by the dolphins before the shark disappeared and they were allowed to swim back to shore. The dolphins had sensed the danger to the human swimmers and had taken action to protect them, just as they would protect their young. Later, two of the dolphins were butchered by poachers.

11. Animals have been known to give food to hungry humans. Koko, the gorilla who learned to communicate with humans through sign language, gave medical advice to a human woman who complained of indigestion. Koko told the woman to drink orange juice. When the human revisited ten days later and offered Koko a drink of orange juice, Koko would not accept the drink until assured that the woman felt better.

12. A Border collie woke a young mother from a deep sleep and led her to her baby's cot. The baby was choking on mucus and had stopped breathing.

Copyright Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman 2011
Taken from Animal Miscellany by Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman (available through the bookshop on this website).