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Dogs Sense Cancer, But Are They Moral?

August 28, 2008 02:50 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
Dogs are sniffing out cancer and other illnesses, and perhaps becoming more intelligent, while scientists continue debating animal morality.

Super Sniffers

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In studies over the past few years, dogs have displayed an ability to sniff out lung and breast cancers, and are being trained to discern cases of ovarian cancer, according to MSNBC.

The unique canine combination of a highly sophisticated sense of smell and constant human observation seems to have turned some dogs into “skilled diagnosticians,” able to sense human illness “long before we might ourselves,” MSNBC reports.

Most animal behavior experts agree that dogs that sense cancer or other disorders, including epilepsy, are “probably smelling a chemical given off by the body” or picking up on altered human behavior, reports the BBC. In other words, the ability is biochemical, not psychic. This is true even in cases of animals sensing impending death, says U.K. animal behavior expert Jacqueline Pritchard.
“There’s little we really know about it but as the body is shutting down, I would hypothesize that the cat is sensing and smelling the organs shutting down,” Pritchard said.

Dogs’ highly sophisticated sense of smell is astounding, but researchers are also buzzing over the possibility that dogs have become more intelligent and gained a sense of what is fair by spending time with humans, a sentiment that would have been dismissed just a decade ago, according to the Daily Telegraph.

A study presented in Budapest, Hungary, at the first Canine Science Forum, supported the idea that dogs have evolved “alongside humans,” and that the process has had “a remarkable effect on dog cognition.”

The suggestion that dogs can sense what is right and wrong defies a 2007 study asserting that the ability to judge fairness was a trait unique to humans, and not evident in chimps. If dogs can evolve to display human behaviors, could other animals be next?

Background: The animal-human connection

A 2007 article in The New York Times discussed whether the “emotional building blocks” of human morality were contributed by chimp and monkey societies. Although many philosophers and biologists do not consider animals to be moral beings, they argue that certain social behaviors, such as sensitivity to the plights of others, are “the precursors of human morality.”

Primatologist Frans de Waal
has been influential in changing biologists’ perception that “complex behavior—behavior with an undeniable moral dimension” is “exclusive to human beings,” reports The Believer. De Waal’s focus on animal emotions was long dismissed, but has resulted in “an impressive array of evidence suggesting that we are not the only species to have moral feelings,” according to The Believer.

Says De Waal, “There are more and more findings coming out that perspective-taking is not even restricted to primates—probably dogs have it, some birds may have it.”

Reference: Pine Street Foundation

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