Dogs That Can Smell Cancer: Meet The Canine Friends At The Forefront Of Early Diagnosis

Dogs that can smell cancer may be the newest tool in early detection and treatment of some forms of the dreaded disease, CNN is reporting.

For over 25 years, medical researchers have seen promise in cancer detection from our canine friends. The first documented and studied case of a dog sniffing out cancer dates from 1989, when British medical journal The Lancet wrote about a woman whose dog would obsessively sniff a mole on the woman’s leg. It would later turn out that the mole was actually a form of skin cancer.

Since that time, researchers all over the world have concluded that dogs can smell cancer — often better than expensive laboratory diagnostic equipment. One such dog is Daisy, a fox red Labrador who sniffed out cancer in her owner, Claire Guest.

“She kept staring at me and lunging into my chest. It led me to find a lump.”

That lump would later turn out to be a three-centimeter (1.18-inch) tumor deep in her chest. Had Ms. Guest waited until she could have detected the lump herself, the cancer would have been far advanced — possibly too late.

“Had it not been drawn to my attention by Daisy, I’m told my prognosis would have been very poor.”

Another woman whose life may very well have been saved by her cancer-sniffing dog is Diane Papazian, who tells NPR how her dog, Troy, smelled her breast cancer.

“So, he’s in bed with us, and he is in between my husband and myself, and – so, his head is right here. And he is nuzzling up against my left side, and he keeps nuzzling, and he’s nuzzling, and he’s not stopping… So finally I said, ‘what in the heck is he doing?’ So, I started to itch, because I’m highly allergic, and that’s when I felt the lump.”

The reason dogs can smell cancer is their highly-evolved nose — two of them, actually. While the human nose has 5 million smell sensors, a dog’s nose has 300 million.

Even better for dogs, they also have a second nose, of a sort: a powerful organ in the back of a dog’s nose, called Jacobson’s Organ (or vomeronasal organ), amplifies a dogs’ sense of smell (it’s present in other animals besides dogs). This combination of highly-evolved organs enables dogs to sniff out what’s known as volatile organic compounds — unique odors given off by cancer, detectable in the patient’s breath, urine, or even on their skin.

Now Claire Guest, whose breast cancer was detected by her dog, is leading a groundbreaking study meant to find out if dogs are actually smelling cancer, or are just picking up on symptoms that can also be present in a patient who doesn’t have cancer. Dogs are led around a carousel containing eight urine samples: one from a cancer patient; one from a patient of a similar age to the cancer patient and who has cancer symptoms but no cancer; and six control samples.

If the dogs are proven to truly be able to detect cancer consistently, Guest’s research could someday lead to an “electronic nose” — that is, a machine that can be used in conjunction with current cancer tests to give better diagnoses in the future.

Still, you shouldn’t expect to see dogs at your oncologist’s office any time soon. There’s a reason why dogs aren’t a routine part of the cancer-detection process today, and it all comes down to money. Simply put, until there’s a commercially successful method of involving dogs in the cancer-screening process, there’s little incentive for the medical industry to follow up on research and development, says Dr. Sheryl Gabram, a surgeon at Emory University.

“It would need a lot of years of study and a lot of development. It’s still far from that… I think it’s an area of research that’s still promising.”

Do you believe dogs that can smell cancer should be taken more seriously by the medical industry? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

[Image via Shutterstock/Cryber]