Dog Tags Could Monitor Our Chemical Exposure

Research shows tags may be used as early warning system for human health.
By Tracey Peake, August 2020, Updated June 2021
Dogs could be an important sentinel species for the long-term health effects of environmental chemicals, research shows.

Dogs could be an important sentinel species for the long-term health effects of environmental chemicals, research shows.

Silicone wristbands for humans are promising passive samplers to check exposure to organic contaminants; however, investigating associated health risks remains challenging due to the latency period for many chronic diseases that take years to manifest in humans. Researchers used silicone dog tags as passive environmental samplers to collect information about everyday chemical exposures in dogs and are excited by the results. 

“Silicone monitoring devices are still relatively new, but they represent an inexpensive and effective way to measure exposure to the chemicals we encounter in daily life—from pesticides to flame retardants,” says Catherine Wise, PhD candidate at North Carolina State University and lead author of a paper describing the work. “And we know that many human diseases caused by environmental exposure are similar clinically and biologically to those found in dogs.”

Wise and other researchers recruited 30 dogs and their owners to wear silicone monitors for a five-day period in July 2018. Humans wore wristbands, while the dogs wore tags on their collars.

The researchers analyzed the wristbands and tags for exposures to chemicals within three classes of environmental toxicants that are often found in human blood and urine: pesticides, flame retardants, and phthalates, which are found in plastic food packaging and personal care products. They found high correlations between exposure levels for owners and their pets. Urinalysis also revealed the presence of organophosphate esters (found in some flame retardants) in both owners and dogs.


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“What was remarkable about these results were the similar patterns of exposure between people and their pets,” says study coauthor Heather Stapleton, professor and director of the Duke Environmental Analysis Laboratory at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “It’s quite clear that the home environment contributes strongly to our daily exposure to chemical contaminants.”

However, while dogs and humans may share similar exposures, the health effects do not follow similar timelines—a finding that could aid researchers in teasing out relationships between chemical exposure and human health. “Dogs are special when it comes to linking exposures and disease outcomes because effects that may take decades to show up in humans can occur in one to two years in a dog,” Wise says due to their shorter lifespan.

“Humans spend incredible amounts of time with their dogs—that’s especially true right now,” says Matthew Breen, professor of comparative oncology genetics at NC State and corresponding author of the paper.

Dogs provide valuable insights for exposure-related human disease because they share similar exposures in the home, have shorter lifespans, share many clinical/biological features, and have closely related genomes.

“If we develop ways to correlate dog disease with their exposures over time, it may give human-health professionals the opportunity to mitigate these exposures for both species. Dogs are a powerful biological sentinel species for human disease.”

Grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the NC State Cancer Genomics Fund, and the Wallace Genetic Foundation supported the work.

Photo by Jay Wennington / Unsplash