A Dog’s Nose: A Life Saving Sense of Smell

There are a number of stories out there involving dogs letting their owner’s know something is “off” about their health. It usually involves the dog constantly smelling their owner or acting very strangely. The owner ends up going to their doctor to see if their dog was trying to tell them something and they end up getting diagnosed with a type of cancer or serious illness. Are these just coincidental feel-good stories? Or does a dog’s nose actually have the ability to identify cancer?

It is well known that dogs have an excellent sense of smell. That special ability has been utilized in many ways such as drug detection, bomb detection, search and rescue and many others. It is truly amazing what dogs are able to do with their noses.

I recently came across an article that was about dogs using their noses in another special way. Dr. Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD and her group at the University of Pennsylvania have been working with dogs to try to develop an early detection blood test for ovarian cancer. They are using the dog’s sense of smell to try to identify the chemicals dogs are targeting when they “smell” ovarian cancer.

In this study, the dogs are provided with blood samples of patients with ovarian cancer and the use of a clicker is utilized to train the dogs when they smell the sample. Eventually, a normal blood sample is added to the mix, and the dogs are rewarded when they identify the cancer sample. Later on, the dogs are even able to tell the difference between a cancer sample and a benign ovarian cyst sample. After a few months of training, the dogs are able to identify the cancer samples correctly 85-90% of the time! (Veterinary Practice News, December 2018).

Ovarian cancer isn’t the only type of cancer dogs are being studied to sniff out. An article by Dogs Naturally Magazine highlights some studies involving other types of cancer detection. There are studies involving dogs sniffing out prostate and bladder cancers by smelling urine; breast and lung cancer by smelling breath samples; melanoma by smelling the lesion and many others including colon cancer. Not only are they sniffing out these diseases, but they are also doing it with incredible amounts of accuracy!

Dogs truly are amazing creatures. They are not only great companions and give us their most unconditional love, but they also may, one day, have a role in saving your life! It’s just another one of the many reasons why dogs truly are man’s best friend.

Written by: Dr. Jessica White, DVM