- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Anyone with a dog who spends several minutes analyzing the neighbor’s lawn, or launches himself face-first into a seemingly innocuous plant only to emerge with a mouthful of cat poop, knows how astute a dog’s sense of smell can be. Your dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than yours, thanks to 300 million olfactory receptors in his nose, as compared to six million in yours.
Your dog is also hardwired to pay more attention to how stuff smells: the portion of his brain devoted to analyzing scent is proportionally 40 times greater than yours. It’s this powerful smelling set-up that makes certain dogs excellent candidates for cancer detection. Recent research proves it.
Canine Scent Detectives
At the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, researchers have been working with dogs to help them detect ovarian cancer, a notoriously hard-to-diagnose disease that kills over 14,000 women in the U.S. each year. The study is based on the idea that cancerous cells emit particular gasses and compounds that have a distinctive smell. Dogs are uniquely suited to detect such smells, thanks to a complex olfactory system that helps them pick up scents we humans would never notice.
In the video above, a training session with Dalton demonstrates the art of unique scent detection.
What Your Dog’s Nose Knows
There are plenty of stories out there about dogs detecting cancer in their owners, and these stories are what led researchers like Penn Vet director Dr. Cynthia Otto to research canine scent-detection in the first place.
“People would report that their dog was acting differently. And they went to their doctor and they found out they had cancer. Or the very first case was a dog that was biting at a mole. And that person went in and found out that it was melanoma,” Otto said in an interview with PBS Newshour.
When you think about it, a dog’s ability to detect changes in our bodies makes perfect sense: a highly-refined sense of smell paired with a highly empathetic relationship to human companions means they know when something is up, said Dr. Aziza Glass, DVM and consulting veterinarian for Freshpet. “Your pets are with your whole life, there is a lot of familiarity and close proximity. They will recognize and pick up on abnormal smells.”
This was the case with Daisy, a famous cancer-sniffing dog in England who alerted her owner to a tumor in her breast and has successfully detected more than 550 cases of cancer in humans since.
Of course, you should never let your dog take the place of medical attention. But the work of researchers like Dr. Otto and her team of canine super-sniffers may lead to great advances in medical science, proving what pet owners have known for a long time: dog is truly humanity’s best friend.
While it’s cute to imagine your dog in a white lab coat and stethoscope dispensing health advice, as Dr. Otto told the New York Times, “We don’t ever anticipate our dogs walking through a clinic, but we do hope that they will help refine chemical and nanosensing techniques for cancer detection.”
Dogs will never take the place of technology in medical settings, but there have been many successful studies that prove dogs have what it takes to identify cancer, and scientists hope to harness this evidence to create better and more accurate cancer-testing technologies.
The Penn Vet Working Dog Center and associates hope to have a mechanical ovarian cancer-detecting prototype—a sort of “electronic nose”—finished upon the completion of their work. It’s tools like this, inspired by dogs but operated by humans, that are most likely to be implemented in cancer diagnoses in the future.