Canine cancer detection

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Canine cancer detection is an approach to cancer screening that relies upon the claimed olfactory ability of dogs to detect, in urine or in breath, very low concentrations of the alkanes and aromatic compounds generated by malignant tumors.

A Border Collie once notified his owner of an odd smell in the owners chest. The dog started to behave oddly since he kept noticing this smell. The owner had previously survived breast cancer, and went to have a new mammograph due to the dog's behavior. The mammograph returned negative, and the owner then proceeded to have a surgical biopsy, in which it was shown she indeed had a cancer tumor. After doctors removed it, the dog's behavior returned to normal again.[1]

While some research has been promising, no verified studies by secondary research groups have substantiated the validity of positive, conclusive results.


Media coverage[edit]

The proposal that dogs can detect cancer attracted widespread coverage in the general media. In 2015 the Huffington Post reported that studies have suggested that dogs may be able to detect lung cancer, melanoma, breast cancer and bladder cancer, and that dogs can be trained to detect cancer in 93% of cases.[2] In 2016, actress Shannen Doherty told Entertainment Tonight in an interview that her dog identified her breast cancer before doctors could diagnose it.[3] National Geographic said that "man's best friend can detect various cancers, including prostate cancer, colorectal cancer and melanoma."[4]

On the other hand, a review by Australian Popular Science found that the more rigorous trials produced less positive results.[5] Another trial reported in Nature World News found disappointing results, but nevertheless "the researchers... believe that one day, dogs can still detect lung cancer."[6]

NBC reported that Britain's National Health Service is behind the first clinical trial to test the ability of canines to detect cancer.[7]


Although the first suggestion of this approach in a medical journal, The Lancet, dates back to 1989,[8] there were only occasional publications on the subject in the next decade.[9]

However, two studies (one published in 2004[10][11][12] and one in 2006), involving detection in urine, had promising results, with the 2006 report claiming a 99% accuracy in detecting lung cancer,[13] although both studies were preliminary and involved small numbers of patients.

In a 2011 study, lung cancer was identified with a sensitivity of 71% and a specificity of 93%, using breath samples.[14]

Skeptical analysis[edit]

In a May 25, 2012 article, “What to make of Medical Dogs” published by Science-Based Medicine, Peter Lipson reported on his review of the scientific literature regarding these claims and found valid support for positive conclusions to be lacking:

While anecdotes abound, there is scant literature to support this ability. One unimpressive pilot study looked at dogs’ potential ability to detect bladder cancers from urine samples. The idea behind cancer dogs is that there may be volatile compounds produced in cancer patients that dogs can detect by scent. In these studies, the compounds are not identified, not tested for, not named. There are many confounders, for example, in the few samples used, there may be other differences being detected by the dogs.[15]

In the other study (I found very few) dogs were “trained” to detect lung and breast cancers in humans. The methodology of breath sampling is not validated as far as I can see, and once again, the putative compounds in breath are not identified. Statistically, the efficacy is marginal at best… I don’t doubt the social and emotional value of dogs as companions, and as active helpers in many circumstances. But beyond this, the evidence is wanting.[15]

Other claimed canine disease detection capabilities[edit]

In 2021, in order to fight the spread of the 2019-nCoV virus during the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of dogs was initiated to detect people infected with this pathogen.[16]

As American Airlines Arena in Miami reopened to fans on January 28, 2021, the Miami Heat utilized dogs it billed as "coronavirus detection dogs" to screen people entering the building.[16] CNN reported that use of sniffer dogs is based upon early unproven preliminary studies. When asked about the veracity of the research, Matthew Jafarian, Miami Heat's executive vice president for business strategy, told CNN "that he originally was skeptical, but found the studies 'compelling' because they reached similar results. He said that the Miami Heat is taking its dog program "very slowly" until it learns more."[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ BBC Earth, The Best of Dogs
  2. ^ "'Groundbreaking' Trial Will Test Cancer-Sniffing Dogs". 2015-09-07.
  3. ^ Saul, Heather (3 August 2016). "Shannen Doherty says her dog detected her cancer". The Independent. Retrieved 18 December 2016.
  4. ^ Langley, Liz (19 March 2016). "How Dogs Can Sniff Out Diabetes and Cancer". National Geographic News. Retrieved 18 December 2016.
  5. ^ Chodosh, Sara (5 October 2016). "The Problem With Cancer Sniffing Dogs". Australian Popular Science. Retrieved 18 December 2016.
  6. ^ Marucot, Joyce (29 September 2016). "Dogs Can Smell Fear But Can't Detect If You Have Lung Cancer". Nature World News. Retrieved 18 December 2016.
  7. ^ "These Dogs Are Using Their Noses to Sniff Out Cancer".
  8. ^ Williams H, Pembroke A (1989). "Sniffer dogs in the melanoma clinic?". Lancet. 1 (8640): 734. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(89)92257-5. PMID 2564551.
  9. ^ Church J, Williams H (2001). "Another sniffer dog for the clinic?". Lancet. 358 (9285): 930. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(01)06065-2. PMID 11575380.
  10. ^ Willis CM, Church SM, Guest CM, et al. (2004). "Olfactory detection of human bladder cancer by dogs: proof of principle study". BMJ. 329 (7468): 712–0. doi:10.1136/bmj.329.7468.712. PMC 518893. PMID 15388612.
  11. ^ " - Study shows dogs able to smell cancer". Retrieved 13 February 2015.
  12. ^ "Dogs Can Smell Cancer". 24 September 2004. Retrieved 13 February 2015.
  13. ^ McCulloch M, Jezierski T, Broffman M, Hubbard A, Turner K, Janecki T (2006). "Diagnostic accuracy of canine scent detection in early- and late-stage lung and breast cancers". Integrative Cancer Therapies. 5 (1): 30–9. doi:10.1177/1534735405285096. PMID 16484712.
  14. ^ Ehmann R, Boedeker E, Friedrich U, et al. (August 2011). "Canine scent detection in the diagnosis of lung cancer: Revisiting a puzzling phenomenon". Eur Respir J. 39 (3): 669–76. doi:10.1183/09031936.00051711. PMID 21852337.
  15. ^ a b Lipson, Peter. "What to make of Medical Dogs". Retrieved 5 October 2016.
  16. ^ a b c Howard, Jacqueline (28 January 2021). "Miami Heat lets dogs out to screen fans for Covid-19 -- but what does the science say?". CNN Health. Archived from the original on 1 February 2021. Retrieved 1 February 2021.