Dogs Are Being Trained to Detect Malaria by Sniffing People's Socks

Courtesy of Medical Detection Dogs
Courtesy of Medical Detection Dogs

Dogs can find just about anything with their noses, including bombs, drugs, cadavers, bed bugs, and weirdly, whale poop. Now, man’s best friend is being trained to detect malaria in humans by simply sniffing their socks.

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that caused roughly 445,000 deaths worldwide in 2016, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). It’s especially prevalent in Africa, but it's not limited to the continent. As of 2016, nearly half of the world’s population was at risk of contracting the disease.

While malaria is curable, initial symptoms may be mild or difficult to recognize. The disease can progress quickly and result in death if it’s not treated within the first 24 hours. Current diagnostic methods are also time-consuming because they require blood samples to be taken and sent off to a laboratory for testing.

In this way, trained dogs could provide a potentially life-saving service. A group of UK-based researchers say two trained dogs—a Labrador-golden retriever named Lexi and a Labrador named Sally—were able to pick up the scent of malaria on the socks of infected children from The Gambia in West Africa. Although their research is still in the early stages, they believe trained dogs could someday be used to help diagnose malaria more quickly and prevent it from spreading across national borders.

“This could provide a non-invasive way of screening for the disease at ports of entry in a similar way to how sniffer dogs are routinely used to detect fruit and vegetables or drugs at airports,” lead researcher Steve Lindsay, a professor at Durham University's Department of Biosciences, said in a statement.

Their findings are being presented October 29 at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana. For their study, researchers collected 175 sock samples, some of which belonged to 30 children whose blood tested positive for the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. The dogs, which are kept at the Medical Detection Dogs charity in Milton Keynes, UK, were able to accurately categorize 70 percent of the malaria-infected samples and 90 percent of the non-infected samples.

Following the completion of the study, a third dog—a springer spaniel named Freya—also underwent malaria-detection training. Dogs have been trained to sniff out certain kinds of cancer and sugar changes in diabetes patients, but this is the first time they’ve been trained to detect a parasite infection. Researchers say artificial odor sensors could someday be developed, but for now, trained dogs could be a new resource in the global fight against malaria.

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Poike/iStock via Getty Images Plus
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Do Dogs Get Headaches?

Even without raging benders, dogs might still get headaches.
Even without raging benders, dogs might still get headaches.
damedeeso/iStock via Getty Images

Like babies, dogs can be hard to read in the medical ailment department. Are they listless because they’re tired, or because they’re sick? What’s behind their whining? And can they suffer that most human of debilitating conditions, the headache?

Gizmodo polled several veterinarians and animal behavior specialists to find out, and the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Although a dog can’t express discomfort in a specific way, particularly if it doesn’t involve limping, animal experts know that canines that have diagnosed brain tumors or encephalitis can also be observed to have a high heart rate, a sign of physical pain. According to Tim Bentley, an associate professor of veterinary neurology and neurosurgery at Purdue Veterinary Medicine, administering painkillers will bring a dog’s heart rate down. If signs of physical distress also decrease, a headache was likely involved.

Unfortunately, not all dogs may offer overt signals they’re feeling some brain pain. According to Adam Boyko, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, dogs instinctively try to mask pain to avoid showing weakness.

Ultimately, dogs have many of the same central neural pathways as humans, which can likely go awry in some of the same ways. But the kind of persistent headaches owing to head colds or hangovers are probably rare in dogs. And while it goes without saying, they definitely don't need any of your Advil.

[h/t Gizmodo]