Commentary and Philosophy Non-Fiction posted May 17, 2011

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cancer-sniffing dogs

The Nose Knows

by Writingfundimension

Ever wonder if there's more than just hunger behind your canine's determination to defy gravity and risk punishment in order to retrieve the last two pepperoni pizza slices in the cardboard box at the back of your kitchen countertop? The slices you looked forward to having for lunch the next day?

Every time your dog gets caught pilfering food you scold it. But the behavior continues, doesn't it? Even if you have carefully trained your pet to only eat official dog food, I'll bet that it never stops looking for the opportunity to steal 'people food' - something your dinner guests will likely confirm. 

Back to that pizza you had: You probably smelled the meat, the tomato sauce, the melted cheese; and, possibly some garlic butter on your crust as you ate it - all familiar and comforting smells adding to the enjoyment of how it tasted.

With an olfactory ability ten thousand times better than yours, that lefover pizza was akin to Eden's forbidden tree for your dog. Imagine the mounting excitement as it picked up the scent of everything you did plus hints of oregano and basil, the smell of the hands that rolled the dough and placed the fillings on top, odors of the oven it was baked in; and if it was transported to your home, the sweat and nasty car smells of the poorly-paid delivery boy.

The pizza caper your dog pulled off involved using the 220 million olfactory receptors in its nose to perceive the presence of something different in the environment and interesting enough to steal and eat.
A dog's nose is its most vital organ, bringing the light of information into its world. Today she's using it to steal your lunch; but tomorrow she could be using it to save your life.

An example of this is the case of the dog that detected cancer in its owner which had been missed by a doctor. A woman in Great Britain decided to visit her doctor for a breast examination because her small lap dog became agitated after sniffing her breast. Nothing was found on physical examination; but mammography showed a very small focus of malignancy.

She had the area biopsied and was told it had no signs of cancer at its edges when examined pathologically - in effect she was told it was cured. With the removal of the cancerous tumor, the lady's pet settled down. Until three months later, when it began sniffing the breast area again and showing signs of agitation.

Returning to her surgeon, they took a larger section of tissue and found they had missed a tiny bit of the cancer. A happy ending for the owner, and I'm betting that dog had pizza and just about anything else it wanted for a good long while after that.

It's unlikely that you will find yourself greeted by a lab-coated retriever when you enter the examining room of your internist's office any time soon. But scientists are hoping to develop a mechanical nose especially made to detect the smell of cancer; and are depending on dogs to teach them how to do that.

One such device tested recently at the prestigious Cleveland Clinic was only 66% accurate in detecting cancer on a patient's breath compared to 88-99% accuracy in the case of properly trained dogs.

Researchers at the Pine Street Foundation in San Anselmo, California, a cancer education and research center, trained five different dogs to smell breast and lung cancer from breath obtained on patients with known cancer and those without cancer. The dogs were rewarded with treats when they successfully learned the difference.

The second phase involved a 'double blind' trial, where the origin of the samples was withheld from both the dogs and the researchers. The dogs achieved an amazing accuracy as high as 99%.

Research scientists believe the implications of canine detection of cancers for medicine could be enormous. Doctor James Walker, director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University who is planning to train dogs to detect prostate cancer in urine samples says, "It is clear that dogs have a much greater proportion of their brains devoted to smell than is the case with humans." 

But what about dogs who aren't trained like the dog in England or Trudi, a Dalmation owned by Gill Lacey.

"One particular day," as Gill tells it, "I noticed when she [Trudi] walked past me, she came towards me, sniffing at my leg. And I thought I'd just spilled something. But when I looked, she was sniffing at a tiny mole on my leg."

That mole turned out to be a malignant melanoma, a deadly form of cancer, if not discovered early.  Doctors removed the mole and a mass of tissue around it, and when Lacey left the hospital a month later, Trudi confirmed that the cancer was gone.

"Although they'd already said to me it was clear, I felt reassured that it really was," says Lacey, who believes Trudi saved his life. "I'm convinced of that." 

I believe that what is happening in the case of Trudi, and her counterpart in England, is that wonderful synergy that occurs between a pet and its owner. A combination of energetic attunement and love. Our pets know us, perhaps even better than we know ourselves. 

Let's hope that by exploring and utilizing the God-given abilities of dogs and other animals, we will be able to end the practice of animal experimentation using barbaric procedures. As long as research funding remains constant and drug-lobbies don't interfere, universities around the world are eager to explore this new frontier in cancer research.

There is a gentler way to attain the information we need to detect and treat diseases like cancer. Just ask the hand-picked team of specialists known as the Amersham team: Biddie, Tangle, Oak, Dill, Bee and rookies, Briar and Daisy. They don't sign autographs, but they will greet you with tails wagging and, maybe, let you shake their paws.      



Artwork courtesy of angel4451: Yummer Time. Thanks!
Terms: Pathology - Abnormality
The Amersham Team: Cancer sniffing dogs trained in Amersham, England.
References and quotes: CBS News/60 Minutes transcript and Science Netlinks.
The large type is for those who have a little more difficult time reading the screen than others. Just an experiment.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by angel4451 at

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