Much of the health news we read is more doom and gloom than upbeat, so every now and then it makes a nice change to read about the softer side of health news – and this time we really mean softer! The animal world is full of wonders and we’re always learning more about it. Recently the BBC ran a feature on animals that can help diagnose medical conditions. And whilst they may not have spent years and years studying medicine at university, these animals are helping doctors in ways that our medicine can’t.

Rats and pigeons – an unlikely medical friend

We often see rats and pigeons as vermin – the epitome of inner city living. They are seen as a dirty nuisances – more responsible for spreading disease rather than possessing any healing qualities, but perceptions could soon change following revelations that they could actually help aide with the diagnosis of certain diseases such as cancers.

You may not think of pigeons as particularly intelligent creatures, but they happen to possess a great visual memory that could be of more use than you’d think. During a study back in November 2015, it was revealed that pigeons could detect breast cancer just as well as humans, by being able to distinguish between healthy breast tissue and cancerous breast tissue. The study could possibly help to improve the way that image-based diagnosis take place, providing more accurate results.

Whilst it may be expected to find a rat nose-deep in some left out bin bags, their sensitive noses can actually help save lives! Rat’s noses feature as many as many as 1,000 olfactory receptors giving them a much superior sensitivity to smells – humans only have 100-200! Larger rat species such as African-pouched rats (which are about the size of kittens), have been used to help detect tuberculosis in Mozambique. During tests at the Eduardo Mondlane University, Maputo, rats have proven to be able to detect the scent produced by TB bacteria taken from samples of human mucus. They have been trained to indicate when the smell has been identified by rubbing their legs. This has dramatically increased the rate that TB can be detected, with the rats taking just 20 minutes to work through 100 samples – something that would usually take two days!

In poorer countries where TB is more common, this provides an affordable solution in lieu of specialised equipment, and could help save many lives through early TB detection.

Man’s best friend – who could now detect seizures

Research suggests that dogs are our favourite family pets, often applauded for their intelligence and loyalty. However, it seems that they could also possess other skills which further secure their position as man’s best friend – the ability to detect when a person suffering from epilepsy is about to have a fit, before the person themselves is aware. ‘Seizure alert dogs’ provide security and independence to epilepsy sufferers who may have previously been too frightened to venture out or perform simple household tasks because of the unpredictability of seizures.

The charity Support Dogs has been able to train dogs to provide signals, such as nudging the owner’s legs, which could provide up to 45 minutes of warning before a seizure is about to happen. No official research has taken place on the matter, but there are many people who are confident in their dog’s abilities.

As research into treating diseases and illness continues, we’re sure there will be many other discoveries of the hidden medical talents of the animal world. In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more about the effects our pets can have on our health, this research from the British Medical Journal makes a very interesting read.