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Life-Saving Sniffer Dogs Could Detect Your Cancer

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Many lung cancer patients die because their cancer isn’t detected early enough. Early detection of cancer can be key to patient survival. Everyone has heard of guide dogs for the blind or hearing dogs for the deaf, but soon dogs may be used to detect cancer.

There is an unknown compound on the breath of people with lung cancer so doctors from Germany thought they would see whether dogs would be able to detect the cancer.

They worked with 220 volunteers including lung cancer patients, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) patients and healthy volunteers. They used dogs that had been specifically trained.

The dogs were able to correctly identify lung cancer in 71 of 100 cancer patients. They also correctly identified that 372 samples out of 400 did not show cancer.
The dogs could also differentiate between lung cancer, COPD and tobacco smoke even in the presence of food odor and drugs.

The study authors wrote, “To test the robustness of the presence of a so far unknown volatile organic compound in the breath of patients with LC, sniffer dogs were applied.

"Exhalation samples of 220 volunteers (healthy individuals, confirmed LC, or COPD) were presented to sniffer dogs following a rigid scientific protocol.

"LC was identified with an overall sensitivity of 71 percent and a specificity of 93 percent. LC detection was independent from COPD and the presence of tobacco smoke and food odors ..."

The lead researcher, Thorsten Walles from Schillerhoehe Hospital, said: “In the breath of patients with lung cancer, there are likely to be different chemicals to normal breath samples and the dogs’ keen sense of smell can detect this difference at an early stage of the disease. Our results confirm the presence of a stable marker for lung cancer. This is a big step forward in the diagnosis of lung cancer, but we still need to precisely identify the compounds observed in the exhaled breath of patients. It is unfortunate that dogs cannot communicate the biochemistry of the scent of cancer!"

Dogs are renowned for their ability to detect illnesses and save human lives. A dog saved his owner, Jerry Douthett, after he bit off his infected toe. Mr. Douthett had had an infected toe for a while but hadn’t visited the doctor. He went out celebrating with his wife and had too much to drink. While he was asleep his dog bit off his toe. When he went to the hospital, he discovered he was diabetic and if the toe had remained on his foot, the infection may have killed him.

"It wasn't an aggressive attack. He pretty much just ate the infection, so he saved my life," Douthett said. "I probably never would have gone in."

Mary Phillip’s life was also saved by a dog. Her co-worker's pet poodle who she disliked, began licking her head so that convinced her to go to the emergency room where doctors discovered a brain aneurysm that was the size of a walnut. It was leaking and they found blood in her spinal fluid. She then underwent a 10 hour brain surgery to save her life.

Mary was a nurse herself and said, “"I have watched the animals of the people I care for, and they can tell me more about the patient than my own analysis, so yes, I did listen to the dog."

In many cases dogs do turn out to be man’s best friend and their intuition could be used routinely by doctors in the future to save lives.


Sniffer dogs can be used to detect lung cancer, AlphaGalileo. Web. 20 August 2011.

Canine scent detection in the diagnosis of lung cancer: Revisiting a puzzling phenomenon, Euroean Respiratory Journal. Web. 20 August 2011. http://erj.ersjournals.com/content/early/2011/08/05/09031936.00051711

Dog eats toe man heals | WOOD TV8, WOOD TV8 | News, Weather, Sports and Traffic for Grand Rapids and West Michigan. Web. 20 August 2011. http://www.woodtv.com/dpp/news/local/kent_county/Dog-eats-toe,-man-heals

Dog helps woman lick brain injury, The Seattle Times. Web. 20 August 2011.

Reviewed August 24, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg R.N.
Edited by Jody Smith

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