Dogs can use their sense of smell to detect a specific odour associated with seizures, a new study from Queen’s University Belfast has found.
The research, published in the journal MDPI Animals in July 2021, has built on anecdotal accounts from people saying their pet dogs give them warnings before a seizure happens. Until now, it was not known how they sensed an oncoming seizure.
A way of predicting seizures can make people aware of an oncoming seizure and reduce the risk of injury, provide the opportunity for medical intervention and increase a person’s sense of independence.
The research, led by Dr Neil Powell, looked at how a group of 19 pet dogs reacted to seizure-related and non seizure-related odours, using a special tool called the Remote Odour Delivery Mechanism (RODM). The seizure-related odours reflected three separate phases of a seizure – before, during and after.
They analysed the reaction and behaviour of the dogs, and found that all 19 dogs showed a change in behaviour to try to connect with their owner with the seizure-related odours, compared with the non seizure-related ones.
Dr Powell said: “Our findings clearly showed that all dogs reacted to the seizure-associated odour, whether this was through making eye contact with their owner, touching them, crying or barking.
“There is a unique, volatile smell linked to epileptic seizures, detectable by dogs, who, in turn, warn their owner a seizure is likely to occur.
“Our research was based on pet dogs with no prior training. If we can train dogs, this has the potential to make a big difference to owners who experience unpredictable seizures and should go a long way in improving not only their safety but also their quality of life.”
The research looked at how dogs reacted to seizure-related odour, but did not study how the dogs would react to an actual seizure. Untrained dogs can react in different ways to seizures, and there have been reports of dogs acting in a dangerous way. It is important to be cautious.