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Doggie Howser M.D.

Tuesday 8 February, 2011 by Shona
Well last week was a win for the dog people of the world. It seems that as well as breaking frontiers in space travel, giving sight to the blind and extending life with their companionship, dogs have now found a way to detect cancer. 

First a disclaimer: I have some issues with describing myself as a dog person. I really like dogs. That's a fact. But I have never owned a dog calendar, I don't have a dog motif sweatshirt or screensaver and I was able to appreciate the irony in the 2000 movie Best in Show. I also don't mind (some) cats.

Dogs good

Even if you are categorically not a dog person, you have to admit the news that dogs can detect early stage colorectal cancer with almost the same accuracy as colonoscopy (considered the gold standard in diagnostic tools) is pretty darn impressive.

The study carried out by Kyushu university in Japan, involved training a female Labrador, let's call her Fido, to sniff out cancer in breath and stool samples. (Incidentally the name Fido comes from the Latin word for fidelity. Not sure about you but I don't know too many cats with the name Fido.)

Cats bad

Fido was given samples of 306 patients; 48 of whom had recently been diagnosed with bowel cancer. The other 258 were either healthy, had another bowel ailment, such as irritable bowel syndrome, or had survived cancer.

When smelling breath samples, Fido impressed researchers by being at least 95% as accurate at identifying cancer as colonoscopy, and 98% correct when sniffing stool samples. What's more, she could distinguish precancerous polyps from malignancies, which colonoscopies are not able to do.

This is exciting stuff. Especially because Fido was so adept at finding early cancers, the holy grail of screening for bowel cancer, a disease that has a cure rate of over 90% when detected at an early stage.

Although the research is very promising, it's unlikely we are going to start seeing screening clinics staffed by dogs in white coats. What might evolve from this research eventually is a breath test to identify the cancer compound that got Fido's nose twitching, but it's a long way off. Fortunately, in the meantime, there is a highly effective and sensitive bowel cancer screening test that you can do in the comfort of your own home. It's called a faecal occult blood test and if you're 50 or over, we recommend you do one at least every two years. Bowel cancer often develops without any symptoms, so screening is very important. Like I say, 9 out of 10 bowel cancers can be cured, but finding it early is essential.

And the next time you are greeted exuberantly by a Labrador, please don't panic, it's just the only greeting they know.


I was most interested to read of the amazing ability of these animals. This could save millions on normal procedures to detect colon cancer if more animals could be trained. I like in the UK and have recently had a FOBD - I am a grandmother and was pleased to have done this on our NHS. However, animals being able to find cancers would be a true breakthrough. Well done, whoever found this method.

From: Joyce, 15/04/2013

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