Did You Know Dogs Can Detect Cancer?


Contributed by Amber L. Drake

Did you know dogs can smell up to 100,000 times more acutely than we can as humans? Dogs have approximately 300 million olfactory receptors compared to our six million. This incredible sense of smell has allowed for amazing discoveries.

Canine research is currently focused on a dog’s ability to detect cancer cells in humans. Why? We, as scientists, have discovered dogs are able to detect cancer at stage zero. Stage zero cancer detection could save many lives. Dogs may be able to detect cancer cells before our modern technology is able.

The Miracle Dogs Can Save Lives

A dog named Lucy has been the leading force in this field. Lucy was originally bred to be a hunting dog, but she was ‘kicked out’ of hunting class because her trainer said she was not able to pay attention.

Lucy was continuously attracted to various sorts of smells. Now, the dog who was kicked out of training class, can sniff out bladder, kidney, and prostate cancer.

What’s her success rate in sniffing out cancer? She has a 95% success rate. That’s impressive.

She’s not the only cancer-sniffing dog. A dog at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, named McBaine, is also a powerful force in this field. McBaine is one of three cancer-detecting dogs in the center. His most recent accomplishment involves sniffing out ovarian cancer simply from smelling various vials of blood.

Ovarian cancer is an aggressive cancer… often not detected until it has progressed to late stages. And, here’s McBaine, with the ability to tell its cancer just by smelling the blood sample.

How We Train Dogs to Be Scientists

This is a common question. How could we possibly train a dog to work with us in a lab? And, actually enjoy the work he does in the lab?

Positive reinforcement is the key here. The dogs are heavily praised when they answer a question correctly, and provided with a toy, or a treat.

The main method used… keeping it fun! That simple. Dogs love mental stimulation. In their mind, they’re essentially playing games all day long with people they love.

The dogs kept at this center, The Penn Vet Working Dog Center, have a 90% success rate is sniffing out cancer cells.

The Italian Ministry of Defense

Another organization, the Italian Ministry of Defense, trained two German Shepherd dogs to detect prostate cancer.

The organization collected 677 samples of urine; 320 samples from men diagnosed with prostate cancer and 357 from men without cancer.

The German Shepherd dogs were able to identify urine samples with cancerous cells correctly 99% of the time.

A Professor from Harvard Medical School outlined the accuracy as being better than any tests currently available for prostate cancer detection.

Detecting Other Health Conditions

The dog’s abilities don’t stop at cancer detection. They’re able to detect many other serious health problems.

Narcolepsy, for example, is a brain disorder which affects a person’s sleep cycle. A person with narcolepsy could be in the middle of an activity and immediately fall asleep. Dogs are able to pick up a scent prior to a narcoleptic attack. Service dogs are used to assist those with narcolepsy to ensure they do not injure themselves when an attack occurs. Dogs are able to warn the individual up to 5 minutes prior to an attack.

Those who are diabetic may also have a desire for a service dog. Dogs are able to detect when blood sugar is dropping or spiking. There is a particular sugar present in a human’s breath; dogs are sensitive to this smell. When the dog notices a person’s blood sugar is abnormal, they provide him or her with a warning which often gives the person enough time to test their blood sugar and take their insulin.

Although there are several others, the final health condition dogs are helpful with is stress levels. This may not sound as serious as the others; however, stress can lead to serious health conditions if a high level of stress is present over a period of time. Even if we do not appear to be stressed, dogs can smell the hormones released by our bodies during difficult situations. In these situations, dogs are able to alert their owners to take deep breaths. In addition to this, petting a dog actually releases oxytocin (the ‘happy’ hormone) through both his and our bodies. This particularly assists those with PTSD.

A Long Road

We still have a long road ahead of us regarding research but we, as researchers, are learning more and more every day. Dogs have saved many lives and with continuing research have the ability to save many, many more.