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Health: Detection Dogs

Volume 764: debated on Thursday 17 September 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the merits of using dogs to detect medical conditions.

There is not, as yet, an established level of evidence to support the systematic application of the use of dogs within the NHS at this time. However, both the Department of Health and NHS England will be interested to see the outcome of the prostate cancer detection trials that recently started at Milton Keynes University Hospital with the charity Medical Detection Dogs.

My Lords, each day that we sit in this House we trust dogs’ acute sense of smell of explosives to ensure our safety. Research shows that dogs detect human disease earlier than existing tests, which could increase survival rates and save the NHS millions of pounds. Will my noble friend’s department increase research capacity in this field and ensure that Britain remains a world leader?

My Lords, interestingly, the human nose contains some 5 million scent glands but a dog’s nose contains many more. In fact, the sniffing ability of a dog can be up to 10 million times that of the ability of a human being. Therefore we should not underestimate the contribution that dogs can make in this field. The trial being conducted at Milton Keynes University Hospital, which involves 3,000 patients giving urine samples, with nine dogs in a controlled environment over the three years, could indeed make a huge a contribution to the early detection of certain cancers. Therefore we will follow that trial with keen interest.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, for asking this Question, and also Claire, a young diabetes nurse with type 1 diabetes, who told me about her dog, Magic, which helps her avoid hypos—hypoglycaemic incidents. I declare an interest in that I have been married to someone who has had type 1 diabetes for nearly 45 years. Is the Minister aware that if the NHS did a serious cost-benefit exercise on type 1 diabetes, its investment in measures to assist strict blood glucose control and prevent hypos would be transformed? However, it seems to have a blind spot. Type 1 diabetes accounts for a large chunk of the 10% of NHS spending on diabetes but is not even mentioned in the NHS Five Year Forward View. Will the Government seriously look at extending access to technologies and, for people whom they would assist, access to detection dogs?

It is interesting that the cost of training a dog is some £11,200—considerably less than the cost of training a doctor, I might add. Unquestionably there is considerable evidence to suggest that dogs can make a real contribution as regards people suffering from diabetes and low-sugar problems, whom the noble Baroness mentioned. Decisions in this area are for local CCGs to make, but it is something that we will certainly encourage.

My Lords, that is a clear hint of the Government’s new approach to the workforce shortage in doctors. We will see the outcome of the Milton Keynes trial, but does he agree that the organisation Pets as Therapy needs to be praised? I do not know about dogs detecting illnesses but they have certainly been shown to provide great companionship to patients, particularly long-stay patients in hospitals and care homes. This organisation does a fantastic job.

I agree with the noble Lord. Dogs—indeed, all pets—can provide companionship to many people who are lonely, particularly elderly people who have lost many of their relations. I congratulate Pets as Therapy.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely right in referring to the research in Milton Keynes. As far as prostate cancer is concerned, a man’s best friend probably is his dog. However, there is no doubt that the molecular markers can be detected in urine, and this may be the way to go in future research. It needs to be directed in that way because just a simple dipstick might well be able to detect the markers. If it is possible to detect prostate cancers using dogs, will the Government be prepared to fund such research and carry out a proper controlled clinical trial?

Clearly, molecular diagnostics is a growing field and will have a hugely important role to play in diagnosing many cancers. This was certainly a recommendation of the cancer task force led by Harpal Kumar. We are not by any means saying that we should pursue dogs at the expense of molecular diagnostics, just that we should try every opportunity. There seems to be some evidence regarding the number of false positives—for example, the use of dogs to sniff urine is considerably more accurate than more conventional forms of detecting cancer. We would not therefore want to rule out the use of dogs by pursuing solely molecular diagnostics.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that many diabetes patients who would like a dog and feel that they would be helped by one but cannot get one through the NHS are paying for dogs from unlicensed trainers? However, they are of variable quality and may not be as good as properly trained dogs. Will the Minister look into this to see what can be done about it?

Is the Minister aware that diagnosis may be helped not only by dogs, but by ants in India? One way in which to detect diabetes is to get the patient to urinate up a wall, and if the ants crawl up the column of urine it means that there is diabetes because sugar is there, and ants like sugar. It is a very cheap way to diagnose diabetes.

I seem to remember a noble Baroness asking a question about ferrets climbing up someone’s trousers. Now we have ants climbing up people’s trouser legs. We are open to all sensible suggestions.