How man’s best friend is helping to save lives by detecting cancer

DOG lovers will be quick to tell you why dogs are considered man’s best friend. Loyalty, unconditional love, and companionship. And any doctor will also tell you that having a pet dog makes our lives better and healthier.

In fact dogs are amazing creatures because they are more than incredible friends, providing humans with much needed assistance. Service dogs, for example, faithfully do their jobs helping police drug units by sniffing out illegal substances.

Now dogs are being trained to detect the first signs of a number of diseases, including cancer.

Some are so advanced in their detection skills they can sense when a diabetic sufferer is about to suffer a diabetic shock thanks to a rise or drop in blood sugar levels which can be detected by a change in a patient’s breath.

These dogs are trained by Medical Detection Dogs, a charity based in Great Horwood, dedicated to training dogs in the detection and recognition of human disease by odour.

The charity’s first study, published in the British Medical Journal in 2004, showed dogs can be trained to identify the odour of cancer within urine. This unknown finding indicated the potential to a new method of diagnosing cancer which would be simple, quick and non-invasive.

Claire Guest, chief executive and director of operations for Medical Detection Dogs, said: “The dogs are trained to pick up on a number of changes in the owner’s body and, because their sense of smell is so acute, they can pick up on diseases like cancer in the very early stages.

“They can detect the change in odour no matter how small and can alert their owners by going and fetching their medication or by simply licking their face.”

The dogs are trained for four months and after that can be placed with those who need help.

Claire’s own dog Daisy demonstrated just how effective the training is. A carousel was set up with six urine samples, each containing a minute drop of urine, and only one provided by a cancer sufferer.

Daisy went to each sample in turn before correctly detecting the correct one by sitting next to it. She even managed to detect the correct sample after they were moved around.

The Medical Detection Dogs charity, which was co-founded by Roger Jefcoate, CBE, and Claire, was launched four years ago. The centre was one of the first in the world to harness the use of dogs in medical research of this kind.

Roger, who is patron of the charity, is now leading an appeal to help buy the centre with a launch donation of £20,000.

He is an adviser on technology for disability and has acted as patron of many small healthcare charities, helping them in the early stages of their development.

He said: “If we can help people from having invasive treatments to determine whether or not they are suffering with cancer then all the better. It was at my suggestion that this charity, of which I am an enthusiastic patron and funder, moved to Milton Keynes.”

Claire highlighted a number of examples in which dogs had saved the lives of owners.

In one case a Dalmation dog had persistently sniffed and licked a mole on the leg of its owner, who was only in her 20s. It turned out that she had a malignant melanoma.

The hope for the future is not to have dogs sat in all doctors’ surgeries but instead to use their fantastic sense of smell to provide a non-invasive treatment to patients.

Claire said: “The dogs act as an ‘e-nose’ for doctors and can pick up on the really early stages of illness and help save lives.”