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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 24 September 2004 Issue

Dog Sniffs Out Cancer In Urine
By Emma Ross

LONDON - It has long been suspected that dogs have a special ability to sense when something is wrong with us. Now the first experiment to verify that idea scientifically has demonstrated that dogs are able to smell cancer.

Experts say it's unlikely that pooches soon will become practical partners in cancer detection, but the results of the study, outlined this week in the British Medical Journal, are promising.

They show that when urine from bladder-cancer patients was set out among samples from healthy people or those with other diseases, the dogs -- all ordinary pets -- were able to identify the cancer patients' urine almost three times more often than would be expected by chance.

``The issue is not whether or not they can detect cancer, because clearly they can. The issue is whether you can set up a system whereby they can communicate with you. That requires further ingenuity,'' said Tim Cole, a professor of medical statistics at Imperial College in London, who was not connected with the study and is the owner of a chocolate Labrador retriever.

David Neal, a bladder and prostate cancer surgeon at Cambridge University in England, said it's plausible that dogs might be able to pick up the scent of cancer because people with the disease shed abnormal proteins in their urine.

``I'm skeptical about whether it will be implementable, but scientifically it should be followed up,'' said Neal, a spokesman for Cancer Research UK, Britain's cancer society, who was not involved in the research. ``It might be that the dogs are better than our current machines at picking up abnormal proteins in the urine. What are the dogs picking up? Can we get a machine that does the same?''

It is thought that a dog's sense of smell is generally 10,000 to 100,000 times better than a human's.

The idea that dogs may be able to smell cancer was first put forward in 1989 by two London dermatologists, who described the case of a woman asking for a mole to be cut out of her leg because her dog would constantly sniff at it, even through her trousers, but ignore all her other moles.

One day, the dog, a female border collie-Doberman mix, had tried to bite the mole off when the woman was wearing shorts.

It turned out she had malignant melanoma -- a deadly form of skin cancer. It was caught early enough to save her life.

A handful of similar anecdotes have since been reported, but the latest study is the first rigorous test of the theory to be published.

The experiment was conducted by researchers at Amersham Hospital in Buckinghamshire, England, and by the organization Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. The goal was to prove whether dogs could be trained to detect cancer.

Six dogs -- all pets of the trainers -- were used in the study: three working-strain cocker spaniels, one papillon, a Labrador and a mongrel.

Perhaps the most intriguing finding was in a comparison patient whose urine was used during the training phase. All the dogs unequivocally identified that urine as a cancer case, even though screening tests before the experiment had shown no cancer.

Doctors conducted more detailed tests on the patient and found a life-threatening tumor in the right kidney.
 

Return to Animals in Print 24 September 2004 Issue

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