Animal lovers everywhere now have even more reason to admire dogs. Our canine friends provide us with companionship and unconditional love, they entertain us, and they can even help us earn our livelihood. Plus, dogs can help us live longer, as well, by acting as potent anti- stress agents. They also rescue and protect us when we’re in danger and they help those of us with disabilities. Dogs also comfort us when we’re sick or lonely. Now, we can add to the extensive list that dogs “give us a greater chance of surviving cancer.”
Breast and lung cancers are a big threat nowadays — in fact these two types combined are the number one cause of cancer mortality around the world. It’s important that we find a way to catch these types of cancer early on, while there’s still time and opportunity to fight them effectively and with the least amount of suffering for the patient.
The current methods of detection for both of these major forms of cancer are not yet effective enough. Sometimes they fail to catch cases in the early stages (for example, the tumor is too small) or the tests produce false positive or negative results, which can be devastating for the patient.
However, a recent study has provided us with hope that a new method of detection, which is alternative yet accurate, could be available in the near future, and it might involve dogs. The study wanted to test out whether or not dogs could sniff out patients with various stages of lung or breast cancer.
Five regular dogs, previously untrained in scent detection, were trained by the researchers to recognize the breath of people with cancer and to distinguish their samples from those of controls (healthy subjects). Once the dogs were ready, the researchers tested their skills on 86 people with breast or lung cancer, and 83 people with no history of cancer.
Actually, the scientists gathered breath samples from each subject and presented them to the dogs for the “sniff test.” Both single-blind and double-blind experiments were done, all randomized, with the latter requiring that neither the experimenter nor dog handler knew which sample was which.
The results were astounding. The dogs, which had only undergone three weeks of training in scent detection, were able to detect lung and breast cancer at various stages with a high degree of accuracy (88% to 97%).
How did they do it? Well, as you have probably heard, dogs have an extremely refined sense of smell. This is what has spurred their use as aids in hunting, explosive detection, and search and rescue missions. It is thought that dogs can discriminate between complex chemical combinations, which explains why they would be able to detect a disease such as cancer from a simple breath sample.
This ability could provide the basis for a new diagnostic tool, whether the medical field creates a role for dogs or researchers somehow incorporate the dog’s olfactory talents into some kind of device or test. In any event, it could be another step toward achieving earlier cancer detection.