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Can Dogs Detect Cancer?

Is it possible for a dog to smell cancer? Studies are showing some strong evidence that dogs can be trained to detect cancer, although exactly how they do this is still not quite understood. Research has shown that dogs can detect early stages of some types of cancer with a high degree of accuracy. However, more studies are needed before dogs can be approved for this use.


Sniffing Out Cancer

We all know that dogs have an amazing sense of smell. Conservative estimates rank a dog's sense of smell as 1,000 times better than a human's. But can dogs really detect cancer? The answer is yes!
One of the keys to successful cancer treatment is to detect it early. This is where a dog's nose can be one of the most valuable assets we have. Published studies have shown that dogs can detect lung and breast cancer in its early stages with 88 percent specificity and 99 percent sensitivity -- that makes them highly accurate. What's more, this detection device is noninvasive and relatively inexpensive.
So how do they do it? The exact mechanics are somewhat a mystery, as we don't really know how a dog's nose works. We do know that dogs can smell "in stereo" and that they can isolate smells and where they come from. For example, if you are cooking beef stew, all you are going to smell is beef stew. Your dog, however, can separate the odors into beef, onions, celery, carrots, etc.
The InSitu Foundation is currently the only group dedicated to training dogs to detect cancer in humans. They train the dogs using breath samples -- specifically exhaled breath condensate -- that are collected on a piece of cloth. There appear to be subtle differences in the breath between a person with cancer and a person without that the dogs are able to detect. Perhaps this is due to something that occurs on a molecular level as cancer cells grow.
Interestingly enough, the InSitu Foundation does not rely on a single dog to detect cancer. Rather, they have teams of five dogs, which makes sense. If a single dog is indicating the presence of cancer, that dog could be wrong. If all five dogs are detecting it, however, their accuracy is less likely to be questioned.
Unfortunately, this method of detecting cancer is still experimental. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved dogs yet as a cancer detection tool. As more studies are published, however, the hope is that this will change in the near future.
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