Dogs Detecting Cancer: Is It Real?

Last February, international newspapers erupted with the story of a Doberman Pinscher named Troy who had persistently nuzzled his owner's, Diane Papazian's, breast when he was only four months old, and, in so doing, helped her discover an aggressive breast cancer tumor before it was too late. The itching caused by Troy's persistent nuzzling caused Papazian to discover the tumor. The question is: did Troy detect the tumor or was it merely happenstance that the tumor was found?

Research on the subject of dogs detecting tumors have yielded mixed results, though those who have benefitted from their dog's persistence, like Papazian, insist that their dogs detected the tumor, leading the owner to go to a doctor and get a diagnosis. So, what is the truth in regards to a dog's ability to detect breast cancer?

The Research

The hypothesis that dogs detect cancer tumors has been around for many years, but has only recently been looked into and has yielded mixed results. Researchers in a 2006 study successfully trained five ordinary household dogs to distinguish patients with cancer and patients without cancer simply by smelling their breath. The double-blind study showed that dogs had an extremely high accuracy of detecting all four stages of lung and breast cancer in patients. In 2004, a similar study found that dogs can detect bladder cancer in the urine of patients. At the same time, only two of six dogs in a 2008 study predicted breast or prostate cancer accurately in the urine of patients.

The problem with even the successful studies, though, is the fact that most of the time, the successful dogs could not detect cancer better than conventional medical tests. It would be pointless to invest money in training dogs to detect cancer when a cheaper and more efficient medical test could do it better. At the same time, normal dogs that aid their owners in discovering their cancer are useful for early detection and treatment.

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The Stories

Troy is definitely not the first or the last dog to detect cancer on his owner. In fact, one dog has the potential to detect cancer in patients with 91 percent accuracy just by sniffing their breaths. Marine, an eight-year-old black Labrador Retriever specially trained to detect colorectal cancer, was put to the test in a study published in British journal, Gut. Marine even beat the conventional fecal occult blood test, which only predicted the presence of cancer with 10 percent accuracy.

In the world of breast cancer, stories of dog detection are actually fairly common. Every few years, a story of a dog detecting breast cancer emerges. Most recently, BBC Earth unveiled the story of Maureen Burns and her dog Max, who detected her breast cancer before a mammogram even showed it. Two years ago, a dog named Penny pawed her owner's, Sharon Rawlinson's, breast where an aggressive tumor was growing until Rawlinson went in for an exam. The diagnosis was breast cancer, but just as in most of these stories, the dog had been persistent enough early on, so Rawlinson survived.

No matter the accuracy of these pups, the stories of women finding cancer because of their dogs shows that dogs have some level of skill for finding tumors. Even if they are not utilized scientifically, dogs will still be an important part of recognizing breast cancer.

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