Can Your Dog Tell if You Have Cancer?
The stories of our lives as humans have long included the heroic deeds of our dogs. Dogs have saved us from fires, gotten us through snowstorms, rescued us from the water, and lain by our sides for weeks while we were sick. For centuries, not only have they been our constant companions, delivering unconditional love whenever we most needed it, but they’ve often been the heroes taking care of us in our most dire of emergencies.
I have no doubt having a dog is a good thing (especially for my stress!). I’m considering getting one myself, but have never made the leap. Scientific studies have found that pet owners have fewer doctors visits,1 survive longer following a heart attack,2 and experience a higher level of well being in older age.3 Other studies show that pet ownership helps lower blood pressure response to stress, and provide some of the elements of human relationships known to contribute to health.4
Lately, researchers have found that dogs can do even more. Today, they are the eyes for those of us who are blind, the ears for those of us who are deaf, and the legs and hands for those of us restricted in movement. The magazine “Healthy Pet” (Summer, 2010) just reported on a German Shepherd who saved his owner’s life by dialing 911!
I’ve always suspected that dogs may help with stress, but what’s even more exciting is that recent studies show they may be able to help us through cancer, or even detect cancer before the doctors do. This is powerful! To most fighters and survivors, it’s no secret how much help dogs are in the recovery stages. They may be one of the few in our support group that will let us just break down and cry in their fur. So important are dogs to cancer recovery that in April of this year (2010), the American Cancer Society held a fund-raiser in Champaign’s Centennial Park to honor the emotional support dogs so often provide cancer patients.
Beyond their staunch loyalty, however, dogs have even more formerly hidden talents. Scientists recently discovered that they can detect epileptic seizures before they occur, which has led to a burgeoning new group of epileptic therapy dogs being trained and used by people with the disorder. And a 2006 study found that in a matter of weeks, ordinary household dogs could be trained to accurately distinguish breath samples of lung and breast cancer patients from those of controls. In other words, the dogs could “sniff out” cancer, at both the early and late stages of the diseases.
Researchers suspect that cancer cells emit different waste products in the body than regular cells, providing this new way of detecting it. The University of Maine is following up with another study to see if dogs can sniff out ovarian cancer as well. “Dogs have shown a high rate of success in distinguishing between normal and abnormal breath samples associated with different types of cancer,” says University of Maine chemistry professor Touradg Solouki, “and what we hope to determine is exactly what it is that the animals can detect….We want to know what’s happening in the body at the molecular level so that we can develop better treatments.”
That dogs can sniff out problems isn’t necessarily brand new. Back in 1989, The Lancet reported on a border collie-Doberman mix who repeatedly sniffed a mole on its owner’s thigh and even once tried to bite it off. Its owner finally had it checked and learned it was a malignant melanoma. Whether or not cancer tests may one day involve more canines and less machines is still to be seen, but imagine if you were going to see your doctor—and his dog! Sounds like a lot nicer appointment, doesn’t it?
Was your dog helpful in your cancer experience? Please share your story.
- Heady B, Grabka M, Kelley J, Reddy P, Tseng Y. Pet ownership is good for your health and saves public expenditure too: Australian and German longitudinal evidence. Australian Social Monitor. 2002;4:93–99.
- Friedmann E, Katcher AH, Lynch JJ, Thomas SA. Animal companions and one-year survival of patients after discharge from a coronary-care unit. Public Health Rep. 1980;95:307–312.
- Hart LA. The role of pets in enhancing human well-being: effects for older people. In: Robinson I, editor. The Waltham Book of Human-Animal Interaction: Benefits and Responsibilities of Pet Ownership. Oxford, Elsevier Science Ltd; 1995. pp. 19–31.
- Collis GM, McNicholas J. A theoretical basis for health benefits of pet ownership: attachment versus psychological support. In: Wilson C, Turner D, eds. Companion animals and human health. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998: 105-22.
Photo courtesy Marvin Kuo via Flickr.com.