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The surgical animal

Updated on: 08 August,2021 06:50 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Dr Mazda Turel |

A canine can sniff out a disease, even before it’s diagnosed, which means that if your pet is paying special attention to certain parts of your anatomy, don’t ignore it

The surgical animal

Representation pic

Dr Mazda TurelHe kept sniffing my right breast for a whole five days,” a 62-year-old lawyer friend said to me about her Labrador,  Oscar, as she narrated the story of how she discovered she had cancer. “He even on occasion dug his snout into my bosom to tell me something was amiss.”


Oscar had been with her for the past eight years after the unexpected death of her husband. She had no children and he was given priority over everything, including her high-profile clients, who came to consult her at the home office she worked out of. Oscar was always around—attending meetings, briefings, and the mediations that took place in the office—and if anyone had a problem with him, they were explicitly told that they had the choice to leave. “My dog knows more law than you do,” she had once told a client, who requested for the hound to be taken to another room, while discussing a sensitive matter.


“So, for the first few days, I simply passed it off as him being horny,” she said in her usual unruffled style. “But, he would not let people get close to me and suddenly became very clingy. I could not understand what was going on!” 


“This can happen with pets if you change their routine or they are unwell themselves, if they can’t see or hear properly,” I interjected, having heard a few such stories. “But, did you check for a lump, could you feel one in your breast at all?”

“No, I couldn’t feel one!” she exclaimed, gesturing animatedly. “I could only confirm that there was something after I went to my doctor and he pointed it out.” The mammogram showed it was the size of a pea, and she went ahead and had the growth surgically removed while it was still in infancy. This required her to be only on oral chemotherapy, which she has been tolerating without any side effects, and she is currently in remission.

“He really deserves an Oscar for all the drama he created in making you aware of this and prodding you to get diagnosed,” I told her. “Best male actor in a supporting role!” she acceded with a gratified laugh, now that this was all behind her.

Dogs have a sense of smell that is several hundred thousand times stronger than that of humans. It helps them detect various chemicals that the body emits when a person is ill; imagine what bad body odour must do to them! With astounding accuracy, a canine can smell lung cancer on someone’s breath, pinpoint a mammary tumour, or detect bladder or prostate cancer in someone’s urine. If your pet is paying special attention to certain parts of your anatomy, it’s time you do the same.

Some dogs can detect epileptic seizures 30-40 minutes before they occur. They can sniff out the odour of a seizure or may be picking up an energy frequency or vibration that the human emits prior to a seizure. Science can only prove what it knows, but animals know so much more. There are organisations that provide service dogs for people with epilepsy, and, in several cases, this has been life-saving; the reactions exhibited by these dogs before the onset of a seizure has given epileptics valuable time—time to take their medication, which prevents or reduces the severity of the seizure, and time to move somewhere safer, where an injury is less likely to occur.

Based on this research, scientists are trying to build electronic noses that are as powerful as their canine counterparts. As of now, however, e-noses are not nearly half as effective. Dogs have also been able to diagnose the Coronavirus with greater than 95 per cent accuracy, and in some countries they are used to screen patients at airports and railway stations. In our country, they ought to be trained to bite those carrying fake RT-PCR test results to travel.

As part of the Zoroastrian funeral rituals, a dog is brought near the dead body to confirm that the individual is truly dead before they are carried away. It also could be that we Parsis don’t trust our doctors fully and need to wait for one final ‘lab’ result. It is also believed that a dog’s gaze is considered to be purifying and drives off demons. The bridge to heaven, our scriptures say, is guarded by dogs. 

I recently went for a trek with a bunch of friends. The moment we got out of our car, a handsome German Shepherd appeared at the foot of the hill, the kind whose shaggy neck you couldn’t help but jiggle in your palms. He was black, brown, and golden, and had decided to hike with us as if he was instructed to by some higher power. Sometimes, he led the way and other times he walked behind, but he never left my side. He growled at others at the edge of the cliff to secure our path. I wondered if he was sent to protect and guide us, and I felt a deep connection with him. We fell in love instantly. It felt as if a part of my soul was awakened.

But this dog kept doing something strange. He kept sniffing my backside. Intermittently. After these recent stories I had come across, I wondered if he was detecting rectal cancer, and I freaked out; my mind’s eye imagining myself post surgery and radiation, sitting with a colostomy jutting out of my abdomen, until it dawned on me that the dog was really only after the scrumptious chicken sandwiches in my bag pack.

The moment we reached the top, he wolfed them all, instantly demystifying all the spiritual significance I had given him so far. In his language, I guess I was barking up the wrong tree. 

Animals speak to us all the time. It’s we who need to evolve to understand what they are telling us.

The writer is practicing neurosurgeon at Wockhardt Hospitals and Honorary Assistant Professor of Neurosurgery at Grant Medical College and Sir JJ Group of Hospitals.

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