Animal sentinels  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

There is increasing recognition that wild, domestic, and companion animals may act as "sentinels" for environmental health hazards by providing early warning of human health hazards in the environment. Animals can act as sentinels because they may be more susceptible or have greater exposure to a particular hazard compared to humans living nearby.


Canaries in coal mines

The classic example of animals serving as sentinels is the canary in the coal mine. Well into the 20th century, coal miners in the United Kingdom and the United States brought canaries into coal mines as an early-warning signal for toxic gases including methane and carbon monoxide. The birds, being more sensitive, would become sick before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators.

Infectious diseases

The discovery of West Nile Virus in the western hemisphere was heralded by an outbreak of disease in crows and other wild birds. Other emerging diseases have demonstrated linkages between animal health events and human risk, including Monkeypox, SARS, and Avian Influenza.

Terrorist events

Some speculate that animals could provide early warning of a terrorist attack using biological or chemical agents. Since most potential bioterrorism threats are zoonoses (infectious diseases of animal origin), animals could also be at risk from a terrorism attack and may be first to show signs of illness due to increased exposure or susceptibility. For example, when anthrax was inadvertently released from a Soviet weapons facility in Sverdlovsk, livestock died at a greater distance from the plant compared to human cases.

Pets and household hazards

Dogs may provide early warning of lead poisoning hazards in a home, and certain cancers in dogs and cats have been linked to household exposures to pesticides, cigarette smoke, and other carcinogens.

"One Health"

Recently, there has been a call for linkage of human and veterinary medicine in a "One Health" approach that recognizes disease events in non-human species may indicate human health risk. The "One Health" approach involves greater information sharing between human health and veterinary clinicians and public health professionals and cooperative efforts to identify and prevent diseases that act across species barriers in a way that is mutually beneficial.

See also


  • van der Schalie WH, Gardner HS Jr, Bantle JA, De Rosa CT, Finch RA, Reif JS, Reuter RH, Backer LC, Burger J, Folmar LC, Stokes WS.

Animals as sentinels of human health hazards of environmental chemicals. Environ Health Perspect 1999 Apr;107(4):309-15.

  • O'Brien DJ, Kaneene JB, Poppenga RH

The use of mammals as sentinels for human exposure to toxic contaminants in the environment. Environ Health Perspect 1993 Mar;99:351-68.

  • Backer LC, Grindem CB, Corbett WT, Cullins L, Hunter JL

Pet dogs as sentinels for environmental contamination. Sci Total Environ 2001 Jul 2;274(1-3):161-9.

  • Rabinowitz P, Gordon Z, Chudnov D, Wilcox M, Odofin L, Liu A, Dein J.

Animals as sentinels of bioterrorism agents. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006 Apr;12(4):647-52.

  • Meselson M, Guillemin J, Hugh-Jones M, Langmuir A, Popova I, Shelokov A, Yampolskaya O

The Sverdlovsk anthrax outbreak of 1979. Science 1994 Nov 18;266(5188):1202-8.

  • Kahn LH.

Confronting zoonoses, linking human and veterinary medicine. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006 Apr;12(4):556-61.

  • The Canary Database: Animals As Sentinels of Human Environmental Health Hazards [1]

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Animal sentinels" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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