We all want to be able to recognize early signs of cancer in our own dogs. Just as with human beings, the signs can take a long time to surface initially and early detection is key to treatment. A wise dog owner will make sure they have enough dog insurance to cover every eventuality with their dog health, and ensure that their pet can receive the treatment they will so desperately need should cancer be detected. But, as with humans, even the best health insurance, providing the best medical cover in the country, cannot always detect cancer cells when they first appear. And ironically, that is one aspect of human health that sees our canine friends are right at the cutting edge of in the research field. We’re discussing cancer detection by dogs. And the evidence for its efficacy is mounting.

Dogs working, Dog at Work

New Findings

In an area of research still in its infancy, scientists are beginning to uncover evidence that it is indeed possible for dogs to detect cancer cells in human beings, by smell alone. This could become a vital tool in the battle against cancer, since early detection is one of the main factors in curing cancer. Research, being led by Michael McCulloch for the Californian Pine Street Foundation, and published in Integrative Cancer Therapies, seems to shows that dogs can distinguish between breath samples given by cancer patients suffering from breast cancer, and those suffering from lung cancer. McCulloch explains that dogs are able to detect chemical traces in the range of parts per trillion. These biochemical markers are present in all forms of cancer, and the implications of the research are exciting.

Training Cancer Detection Dogs

Any dog can become a Cancer Detection Dog with the right training. The researchers rewarded the dogs with food – that great motivator – and trained dogs to sit or lie down in front of a potential patient. The results of the experiments showed that the dogs could detect breast cancer and lung cancer between 88 and 97 percent of the time. Speaking of the findings, Nicholas Broffman, who is the executive director of the pioneering cancer research organization, the Pine Street Foundation, said, “It did not seem to matter which dog it was or which stage cancer it was, in terms of our results.” He continues, “Cancer cells emit different metabolic waste products than normal cells. The differences between these metabolic products are so great that they can be detected by a dog’s keen sense of smell, even in the early stages of disease.”


James Walker, who is the current Director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University in Tallahassee, claims that dogs’ sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times superior to that of humans beings. They have always relied on their sense of smell for tracking prey, often over very long distances. They also use their sense of smell for communication and their brains are wired to receive complex information from smell in a way that humans are not. Walker explains that “Canines have a greater convergence of neurons from the nose to the brain than humans do.” Think of how long your dog takes ‘reading’ an interesting smell he encounters on a walk – some smells seem to be like a good book they cannot put down! Scent hounds are used in hunting of course, and to sniff for drugs and criminals. But it simply hadn’t seemed possible that their sense of smell could be as acute as it seems to be.

Doctor Dogs

There are lots of exciting potential uses for the information gained from the research undertaken by the Pine Street Foundation. Their work is now being replicated elsewhere. Some researchers have considered a future where a dog is resident in doctor’s surgeries to help with preliminary screening, whilst another suggestion is to keep them in laboratories in order to keep their work more focused Other scientists, however, are planning on developing an ‘electronic nose’, to help spread the cancer scent detection further afield, and keep dog training and maintenance costs down. Whatever happens, Cancer Detecting Dogs are opening up huge possibilities for doctors, and they surely provide the least intimidating form of screening possible. Dr. Dogs may well be coming to a surgery near you in the not too distant future.

Resources:  James Walker in the National Geographic
Nicholas Broffman in the National Geographic

Image resource:  mikecogh (Flickr.com)

Filed under: Cancer in Dogs

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