By Janet McAfee

You may be familiar with the incredible ability of dogs to detect odors way beyond our human capability.  Dogs are used to detect drugs and explosives in airports, they help our military in combat detect land mines, and they valiantly work in search and recovery efforts to find missing people.  Service dogs give epilepsy sufferers advance notice to prepare for a seizure.  Now new research shows they can play a significant role in sniffing out one of the most insidious human diseases – cancer.

Anecdotes abound of animals that sense when their owner has a serious illness.  Before the medical professionals diagnosed my sister-in-law with breast cancer, their family dog Danny, suddenly began lying close by her side, a shift in behavior that was not understood at the time. During Deana’s long illness, this sweet Spaniel mix, became a constant comfort, carefully arching his body around her as she lay in her hospital bed.

Dogs may not be the only creature with this ability.  Best Friends Animal Sanctuary just reported on a fluffy white cat named Leo who literally saved the life of his newly adopted owner, Barbara Bowman.  The new pet loved to sit on her lap, but he began to gravitate and paw at the same area on one of her breasts.  This odd behavior prompted her to schedule a mammogram which confirmed she had stage three breast cancer.  Barbara believes Leo saved her life and gratefully explains, “I never would have noticed the lump if it weren’t for Leo!”

Many of these stories have a similarity in that a dog became acutely interested in a certain targeted area of their human’s body.  Dina Zaphiris, a Los Angeles dog trainer and medical scent detection expert, trains dogs to smell cancer.  She explains their unique connection to helping people, “Dogs and humans co-evolved, very few species have done that, and our survival depended on each other.”  Dogs can smell things in parts per trillion.  For example they can smell one drop of blood diluted in 20 Olympic size swimming pools.

Current research is underway at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine that may lead to a breakthrough using dogs to detect ovarian cancer.  This cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer related deaths in women, and currently no effective screening exists for its detection.  The dogs are exposed to tissue and blood samples taken from healthy individuals and those with ovarian cancer.  The dogs receive a reward when they alert on the cancer sample.  One of the participating dogs, a Labrador, detected the ovarian cancer sample 100 percent of the time.

In another study, dogs were able to detect with 99 percent accuracy whether a breath sample came from a patient with lung or breast cancer.  The day is coming when dogs’ scent abilities are an accepted cancer screening method.  Imagine that soon doctors will be able to take breath samples during routine physical exams, and send them to a lab for testing by dogs to screen for cancer.

In one of the largest studies in world, dogs were able to detect prostate cancer by smelling urine samples with 98% accuracy.  Scientists may soon ask, which is the better cancer detector – – – a laboratory or a Labrador Retriever?

Animal lovers know that a wonderful dog in your home keeps you happier and healthier.  Now we are learning of yet another way these marvelous creatures save lives with their instinct, intelligence, and sensory abilities.