There’s a popular meme with a vigilant retriever and the tagline: “Every meal you make, every bite you take. I’ll be watching you.” But sometimes a dog’s superior sense of smell and observation powers are a good thing. Make that a really good thing. According to science, if you’re looking for early cancer detection, dogs might be your best bet. A study presented in Aprile 2019 revealed that dogs could use those super sniffing powers to detect cancer from blood samples.

Research has already determined that dogs can sniff out ailments like diabetes and help their owners predict (and thus avoid) seizures. Cancer detection is another exciting canine skill that already has some reported success and lots more potential. How is it that your dog spends his time napping and grabbing butter wrappers out of the garbage and these dogs are detecting cancers for grateful humans? This is the way it works.

A Dog’s Nose Knows

Dogs have what NOVA calls “a dazzling sense of smell.” To give just one analogy, Barnard College dog-cognition researcher Alexandra Horowitz compares our noticing someone has added a teaspoon of sugar to a cup of coffee to a dog’s noticing the same addition to enough water to fill two Olympic-size swimming pools. Dogs have 50 times more olfactory receptors than humans. More importantly (think of that cheese wrapper beckoning Fido from four rooms away), a dog brain really prioritizes analyzing smells. The canine brain devotes itself to analyzing smells. The part of a dog’s brain that’s tuned to scents is 40 times bigger than the comparable proportions in a human’s brain.

Thank goodness dogs are happy to apply their magnificent noses to scenting cancers. Maybe not any old mutt. But this superpower can be cultivated in many purebreds and even mixed breeds like the Labrador retriever/Irish water spaniel mix named Lucy who was trained for seven years and learned to detect bladder, kidney and prostate cancer with 95 percent accuracy. All they really need is training, lots and lots of training. And researchers who know what canine olfactory systems can accomplish.

Canines Can Sniff Cancer In Blood

A recent study from Florida’s BioScentDx, presented at the famed Experimental Biology 2019 conference in April, determined that dogs can also use their amazing olfactory abilities to determine when a blood sample contains cancer.

The study involved four beagles “clicker trained” to differentiate between healthy blood samples and those taken from patients with malignant lung cancer. Ruling out Snuggles, the one beagle who just wasn’t into it, the canines learned to sniff out lung cancer samples with 96.7 percent accuracy and healthy blood with 97.5 percent¬†accuracy. Good doggies! The findings should help scientists make strides in establishing non-invasive cancer screening methods, including scent detections, according to lead researcher Heather Junqueira. Another possible application would be determining the biologic compounds the dogs detect and then designing cancer-screening tests based on those compounds,” Junqueira said in a press release.

It’s not a cure for cancer, no, but it’s a great way to speed up cancer detection. “Early detection offers the best hope of survival,” Junqueira added. “A highly sensitive test for detecting cancer could potentially save thousands of lives and change the way the disease is treated.”

Next Up For The Canine Cancer Researchers

Junqueira and her BioScentDx colleagues are already at work expanding their findings. In November, the researchers began a study with trained cancer-sniffing dogs and donated samples of breath from breast cancer patients. And they have an ambitious end game in mind, too. According to the abstract, “This study paves the way for a larger scale research project designed to explore the use of canine scent detection as a tool for detecting cancer biomarkers, ultimately leading to their identification.”