Dogs Can Detect Cancer

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.

One of the main areas canine researchers are currently focused on is the dog’s ability to detect cancer cells. Did you know dogs are able to detect cancer at stage zero? Stage zero cancer detection has the ability to be miraculous; the ability to save many lives. A dog named Lucy is one of the beginning legacies toward this discovery.

Lucy was originally bred to be a hunting dog but was ‘booted out’ of class due to her inability to pay attention. She was continuously attracted to various sorts of smells. Lucy is now able to sniff bladder, kidney and prostate cancer … and guess how often she is correct in her sniffing abilities? 95 percent of the time she chooses correctly! Some lab tests do not even have rates that high.

McBaine, a dog at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, also provides us with an incredible example. McBaine is one of three cancer detection dogs in training with two other dogs (Labrador Retriever: Foster; German Shepherd: Tsunami). His most recent accomplishment was learning to ‘sniff out’ a malignant ovarian cancer blood sample. Ovarian cancer is currently the main focus of the center as it is commonly known as a ‘silent killer.’ There are often no symptoms apparent of this disease until it has progressed to late stages.

How do they keep the dogs intrigued when learning? Positive reinforcement is the key here; praising when they answer correctly, for example. When they identify a sample correctly, they are provided a treat or toy. The main goal in regard to the dogs at the center is keeping the work environment fun. Dogs enjoy having a purpose, they enjoy ‘working,’ and to them their work environment is essentially similar to playing games all day. The dogs at the Center have the ability to sniff out the cancer cells over 90 percent of the time.

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

Not only are dogs able to detect cancer but, dogs are also able to detect other health conditions. Narcolepsy, for example, is a brain disorder which affects a person’s sleep cycle. Essentially, 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.

We still have a long road ahead of us in regard to 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.


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