Dogs, for all their familiar, comforting, domesticated presence in our homes, remain to me mysterious creatures. How an animal can predict epilepsy at one turn like some ethereal body scanner and drink out of the toilet the next moment is one of the great paradoxes of the universe; this capacity for strange miracles comingled with the banal.
Some of the mystery surrounding dogs’ unusual prowess in sensing disease resides in their noses. The canine nose is thought to be between 10,000 and 100,000 times more sensitive than the human nose. In addition, a greater portion of their brain is dedicated to interpreting this massive amount of data.
Given their aptitude to experience the world through their noses, it’s no surprise than among the many things dogs can sniff out, cancer is one of them. Dogs have been trained to correctly identify lung cancer on the breath, colon cancer in the stool, and bladder cancer in the urine.
While we know dogs have been able to correctly identify the difference between ill patients and well ones, we still haven’t been able to isolate exactly what it is the dogs are smelling; inflammatory mediators, necrosis, or benzene derivatives secreted by cancer cells? Perhaps we’ll figure it out one day, but for now we can simply revel in the marvel of the idea of a dog breath-sniffer one day replacing the dreaded mammogram or colonoscopy.
In a 2006 study in Integrative Cancer Therapy, dogs from Guide Dogs for the Blind were able to identify breast cancer patients 88 percent of the time. Until they were trained to identify the smell of cancer, these dogs had completed only basic obedience training, meaning this sort of sniff sensitivity isn’t limited just to certain “supersniffer” canines.
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