Healing Hounds

How Dogs Are Being Recognized As Cancer Detectors

By Erik Ryken

Healing Hounds How Dogs Detect Cancer

Recently, actress Shannen Doherty revealed that she received one of the first warning signs of her cancer from her German shepherd, named Bowie, who repeatedly sniffed her right side, prompting her to seek a diagnosis. She reports that Bowie has since become more protective of her since chemotherapy treatments began, and accordingly she has outfitted him with a “security” shirt.

That dogs possess a remarkable sense of smell is nothing new. It’s not a stretch to imagine their noses being as detailed as human eyes in constructing a sense of their environment. They gather first impressions through scent and are known to detect odors in parts per trillion.

Do health conditions have particular smells? Are dogs able to identify these and deliver warning signs to us when we become ill? Despite years of anecdotal evidence, research in the area of dogs detecting cancer began relatively recently, suggesting that there are chemical signals that dogs can pick up on. We’re only beginning to reach an understanding of how a dog’s nose works, but we know they can detect early stages of cancer on a person’s breath better than any breathalyzer.

They are not the only ones with this ability. One potential warning sign for pet owners to get their pets screened for cancer is the presence of abnormal odors in their breath. There are certainly many other reasons for this symptom, but it is worth noting that even humans are capable of detecting a variety of volatile organic compounds – enough to perceive a signal of alarming health.

Britain’s National Health Service approved a clinical trial last year to determine the efficacy of trained dogs in detecting prostate cancer. Initial trials demonstrated a 93% accuracy rate. Dr. Claire Guest, co-founder of the charity, Medical Detection Dogs, which is conducting the trials, can personally attest to the life-saving potential of such work. Her Labrador retriever, Daisy, began nudging her chest in time for her to have her breast cancer detected in an early stage.

Daisy has since detected over 550 cases of cancer and there is a growing number of cancer detection and medical alert assistance dogs now working alongside her, who can be read about here. It’s worth noting that Medical Detection Dogs recognizes the capability of any breed to work in cancer detection and crisis assistance through their noses, but they typically select high-hunt drive working breeds.

Working dogs are proving to be helpful in many new ways, with seizure alerting (after onset) and anxiety relief jobs on the rise for these sensitive companions.

It’s curious that scientists haven’t been exploring the potential of dogs’ noses for longer, given the long history of dogs doing detective and hunting work. Known to be able to navigate home from long distances using their heightened senses, it’s clear that dogs can help battle diseases from a different angle, potentially saving lives in the long-run.