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Life Support: Animals as Medical Companions/ Devices
Regine Debatty, 1 Jul 08


Revital Cohen's final project at the Design Interactions department looked at how cross-breeding man with machines or other species can open up new design opportunities and a space for debate (see her previous project the Telepresence Frame.) I realize that most of the readers are familiar with this concept of 'design for debate' but to avoid any misunderstanding, let's just remind that design for debate explores how design can be used as a medium to draw attention to the social, cultural and ethical implications of new technologies. The resulting design proposals do not provide answers, but they make complex issues tangible, and therefore debatable (via).

Revital's Life Support project looks for way of disconnecting people from the therapeutic machines and cold technologies they are harnessed to. Assistance animals - from guide dogs to psychiatric service dogs and other emotional support animals - unlike machines, can establish a natural symbiosis with the patients who rely on them. Would it be possible to go a step further and transform animals into medical devices?

This project proposes using animals usually bred commercially for consumption or entertainment as companions and providers of external organ replacement, offering an alternative to inhumane medical therapies.


The first part of the project revolves around a concept of Respiratory Dog. Today greyhound racing remains a very lucrative business. Tens of thousands of these dogs are bred annually in an attempt to create the fastest dogs. Most of them are killed if at any time it is determined that they don't have potential to be good racers. The dogs are a mere commercial product and because they constitute a major expense, many of them are killed as soon as it is determined that they don't have value anymore as a racer at a track.

Greyhound race. Image Valkama

In 2003 alone, an estimated 7,500 to 20,000 greyhounds were euthanized simply because they couldn't run fast enough. There are more heart-breaking (even for me who could never be accused of being dog's best friend) facts about their sad existence on the PETA website.

In Revital's scenario, a pedigreed greyhound spends the first twelve months of his life being trained by the racing industry to chase a lure. Over the next three to five years the dog spends his days at kennels and is taken racing weekly to make profit for its owners.

So far, nothing new. However, as soon as its time has come to retire from the racetracks, the greyhound is not euthanised (as happens nowadays to thousands of retired greyhounds), it is collected by the NHS and goes through complimentary training in order to become a respiratory assistance dog.

When training is completed, the greyhound is adopted by a patient dependent on mechanical ventilation and begins a second career as a respiratory 'device'. The greyhound and its new owner develop a relationship of mutual reliance through keeping each other alive.


A new apparatus is used to converts the greyhound's lung movement into mechanical ventilation: the dog is fitted with a harness and placed on a treadmill where it will start running, stimulated by the same mechanical lure employed in its previous training. The treadmill functions as the interface and on/off switch. The harness uses the dog's rapid chest movement to pump a bellows that pushes air into the patient's lungs.


A second scenario envisions substituting a dialysis machine with a sheep. The concept is inspired by several advances of science such as the creation of cows and sheep cloned to have human blood in their bodies. Much research is also carried out to design animals which would carry organs compatible with humans. When one organ would be needed for transplantation the animal would probably be killed to provide the precious body part.

On the other hand, current, mechanical, dialysis treatments are far from being perfect.

Revital's scenario imagine that, in the future, a patient suffering from kidney failure would give a blood sample to lab scientists who then isolate in the genome the regions that code for blood production (bone marrow tissues), and immune response (the major histocompatibility complex), extract the genome from the nucleus of a somatic cell taken from a sheep and substitute the corresponding regions of the sheep's genome with the DNA from the patients' genome.

This recombinant DNA is then inserted into the nucleus of a pre-prepared sheep egg cell. After cell division in the egg is initiated, the egg is implanted into a surrogate ewe which will eventually give birth to a transgenic lamb.


During the day, the dialysis sheep roams in the donor patient's back garden, grazes to cleanse its kidneys, and drinks water containing salt minerals, calcium and glucose.

At night, the sheep is placed at the patient's bedside. The transgenic sheep's kidneys are connected via blood lines to the patient's fistula (a surgically enlarged vein). During the night, waste products from the patient's blood are pumped out of the body, filtered through the sheep's kidney and the blood is returned, cleaned, to the patient.

This happens over and over again throughout the night. The day after, the sheep urinates the toxins.

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I have to say...the sheep idea is gross! (I know that may not add much real value to the discussion, but visceral reaction to an idea *would* likely impact its adoption at least...!)

Posted by: Andy on 2 Jul 08

I am a Respiratory Therapist and a Greyhound owner. I really do not see how a Greyhound running on a treadmill would provide sufficient mechanical ventilation for a human, especially if the human was on continuous ventilation. Knowing my Greyhound, she would NEVER have the stamina to keep running on a treadmill, not even to keep some person alive. They are sprinters, not marathon runners. She sleeps 95% of her day. They do not have that kind of endurance. I am sure there are still Greyhounds that are euthanized, but nowadays there are very proactive adoption groups around the country that take retired Greyhounds and adopt them out as pets. They make wonderful pets.

Posted by: Jennifer on 3 Jul 08

I have 5 greyhounds and am horrified by this idea.

My grandmother was on an oxygen machine for years and it was on non-stop. Greyhounds are not marathon runners, they are sprinters. In racing, they can be raced every 3 days. What you are proposing is that they run every day. For how long? Do you realize how hard this is on them? A lot of their careers end due to racing injuries. I'm not saying that they can never run again but they should not be required too because they can re-injure themselves.

Posted by: Cheryl on 4 Jul 08

this is a ludicrous and obscene idea.
firstly the greyhound is built for speed not stamina. It can run for a very short time then needs rest. This is why they are only spupposed to have 2 main races in a month. What happens to the patient during the rest period - (in short, they die)
This idea was obviously thought up by someone with an intelligent brain but no knowledge whatsoever of animals.
Far better that animals (expecially domestic animals) are used for PAT animals (Pets As Therapy) this way everyone wins, the patients and the animals.

Posted by: pauline presley on 5 Jul 08

It is obvious that the person putting this idea has no idea about Greyhounds. They are extra fast but short speed animals. Yes so many are put down at the end of their racing careers, but that is caused by the sheer exploitation of the Greyhound by the Racing Industry. There is no way a Greyhound has the stamina to maintain what present machines can do. If the person ever watched Greyhounds playing they do it for a maximum of five minutes then need 3 or more hours of rest. In racing they are normally only raced every other day at the maximum. It is another example of someone exploiting a living animal for the benefit of humans. Greyhounds deserve better treatment than this, including of course they should not be exploited by the racing brigade.

Posted by: Dr Ted Wolfenden on 5 Jul 08

As someone who lives,eats,breathes and sleeps rescued Greyhounds and now German Shepherds I find this totally un acceptable,very few greyhounds would be able to produce the amount of energy required to carry out this type of work,the majority of Greys are sprinters even the few marathon dogs out there could not run constantly,what if dogs carry injuries from racing,these will surely be aggrivated or new injuries will be sustained,and what becomes of them if they are deemed unsuitable or do indeed get injured,are they rehomed as pets or are they killed off,a fate which was awaiting them in the first place.?

Posted by: RACHEL ANDERSON on 5 Jul 08

What a ridiculous idea and concept.

Greyhounds are born into a cruel industry where they are exploited for profit. Don't be fooled, cruelty still happens and the dogs suffer. So once they are deemed unprofitable you decide that you will exploit them further and expect greyhounds to run to keep someone alive which in itself is a cruel act as greyhounds are not built for stamina and were bred for a burst of energy.

You do not mention what happens to them once they can no longer run on the treadmill ! Clearly the person with this idea knows nothing about greyhounds. When will society realise how much these wonderful animals are so cruely treated and put an end to it.

Posted by: Kiy on 5 Jul 08

I am so angry at this idea I can't even begin to spit out the words. I volunteer in greyhound rescue and adoption and have 4 of my own. As other commenters have said, greyhounds cannot run for more than a few minutes and their done. Even walking for a long length of time will tear up their feet. How many times can these poor creatures be exploited. It's bad enough too many are killed each year. What does he do with the greyhounds who fail his program or retire from it? Is he donating dollars to greyhound rescue and adoption?

Posted by: Bev LaMont on 6 Jul 08

Greyhounds are exploited for human entertainment on the racetrack. If they are fortunate enough (and, despite increasing awareness of their plight and the hard work and dedication of many, many people there are significant numbers who are destroyed each year when they are no longer profitable for their owners) to be among those who survive beyond their race track years--THEY SHOULD NOT BE EXPLOITED FURTHER BY MAKING THEM RUN ON TREADMILLS AS SOME SORT OF BIZARRE SCHEME LIKE THIS. I even wonder if this theory is serious--could it be that someone is making up these weird scenarios as a joke? This is just too bizarre to be true, isn't it? Just the thought sickens me.

Now using greyhounds as companion animals to residents of nursing homes, group homes, or other care facilities where they would be surrounded by loving people would be one way to utilize their gentle loving nature for the good of many. Under stringent supervision greyhounds could add much to the lives of people who are unable to care for an animal on their own.

Do not trade one form of exploitation for another.

Posted by: Teresa on 6 Jul 08

They'd better make sure they don't genetically engineer that sheep to be able to read philosophy articles -- otherwise it might kill its human at the first opportunity (especially if he's a violinist).

Posted by: Stentor on 6 Jul 08

I can not believe what I have just read. Anyone that has ever been around these creatures after they have been retired knows that they sleep about 95% of the time. I have been working with rescue groups for about 6 years and I have 2 of these beautiful creatures that have been abused by an industry that only values a dollar. They deserve to be repected and loved and once they have been retired by the racing industry they do not deserve to be abused any further.

Greyhounds are sprinters and do not have the endurance to do what the author of this article suggests. I can not even walk my greyhounds for longer than about 30 minutes because they want to go home and relax.

The whole idea of this is disturbing and absurd!!!!

Posted by: Sandie on 6 Jul 08

I am sickened by this idea. As a former greyhound owner, it needs to be pointed out that injuries force a lot of these animals off the track. And they want them to continue to run?? Moreover, they are so pumped full of drugs, they develop medical problems. Mine got a form of doggie lupus. At age 12 he succumbed to kidney cancer. But the obvious question is this: when do these dogs get to retire? They are put thru hardship continuously in the track life, then deserve to rest. Lastly, we need to end greyhound racing, not transfer greyhounds from one form of bondage to another!

Posted by: kathy on 7 Jul 08

Thank you for your comments, unfortunately it seems that some details of my project got somewhere lost or misinterpreted. In the original scenario the greyhound does not run all day, but acts much like a guide dog by accompanying the person. By behaving naturally (which for most greyhounds means sleeping) the dog assists his owner to breath.

The treadmill is only used in case of an emergency when the person urgently needs an increased amount of air, the greyhound then runs for only a few seconds in order to get his lungs to move faster.

Most importantly though, I have to stress that this project is not a realistic proposal and should not be read as one. It is a design provocation, created for the sole purpose of encouraging debate and awareness about the inhumane nature of medical technologies and the cruel use of animals as products.

Posted by: Revital on 8 Jul 08

I am appalled that these beautiful creatures are being abused once again after they gave their all for the racing industry. As the proud owner of 3 greyhounds, they all deserve better than this - you abusers need to have a heart and realize that dogs are Gods creatures are ARE NOT MACHINES.

Posted by: Shirley on 8 Jul 08

I find this post and the practices it describes deeply disturbing. I can't imagine subjecting another thinking, feeling animal like myself to such suffering and exploitation for my own benefit. Animals exist for their own reasons, not to serve as slaves or machines for human use and abuse.

Posted by: Ari Moore on 16 Jul 08



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