Sniffing out cancer

Published: 29 Apr 2020

April is National Pet Week in the UK. Known as a nation of animal lovers, it’s estimated that 25% of households own a dog.  But it’s not just the UK that loves their pets - we know many people across the world are equally as passionate about their furry friends.

We tend to think in terms of what we can do for our animals, not what our animals can do for us.  National Pet Week focuses on the benefits of owning a pet whilst encouraging responsibility, increasing awareness of pet care specialists, and promoting the value of assistance and companion animals.  But pets can give back far more than we can give them.

Dogs have been assisting humans for many years.  Detection or sniffer dogs are invaluable to law enforcement and the armed forces, finding dangerous substances such as explosives, illegal drugs, currency, and contraband electronics including illicit mobile phones.  Dogs are helping ecologists track and protect endangered species by sniffing out their scat - just one whiff, a trained scat-detection dog can find poop from animals ranging from giant anteaters to Pacific pocket mice. And then there are the guide and hearing dogs, helping humans in their own homes and daily lives to alert them to sounds and hazards.  And as everyone knows, a dog helps combat loneliness and in some cases depression and anxiety.


But what you may not know is that dogs can be trained to detect the odor of human disease such as diabetes, Addisons, and cancer


We spoke to Sharon Lynn, a volunteer for Medical Detection Dogs, which is a charity that trains dogs to detect cancer.


Where does your passion for dogs come from?

The dogs I grew up with were my best friends and I learned a lot from them. My grandparents rescued an Irish Setter called Sara, who I adored - apart from the slobbering. Then came Amber - a pedigree Shetland Sheepdog who had been a ‘companion dog’ for a lady with polio - we formed the most incredible bond.  Next up Brent, a very handsome, bouncy and excitable Golden Retriever, who my grandparents ‘rescued’ after Sara passed away. He was a real character, but looking back, I realize that he taught me there was so much more to dogs than just being a pet.


Why did you become a volunteer for Medical Detection Dogs?

In 2011, my husband and I were introduced to the most amazing charity who were training dogs to alert people with brittle Type1 diabetes (as well as other life-debilitating illnesses). The dogs can detect a change in a person's scent and give an early warning signal to prevent a medical emergency.  These dogs were literally saving lives.


 We immediately decided to apply for one of these special dogs as my husband had very unstable Type 1 diabetes. I could see what a massive difference having one of these dogs could make in someone's life and so decided to volunteer as a speaker & fundraiser. In 2012 we were lucky to be partnered with our Diabetes Alert Dog, Lucky!


Tell me a little about your experience with the charity?

We soon realized that the charity doesn’t only train Medical Alert Assistance Dogs for life debilitating illnesses such as diabetes, POTS, Addisons & nut allergies but they also have a Cancer & Bio Detection research facility. 


Since 2012 we’ve done over 250 talks at fundraising events up and down the country and so we’ve been able to share the ever mind-blowing research and statistics of this amazing charity and their incredible team of dogs.


Cancer detection

Medical Detection Dogs has a team of dogs carrying out robust research and studies on cancer samples in their training room and these scientific studies have demonstrated that dogs can detect, with incredibly high accuracy (95-100%) cancers such as prostate, bladder, kidney, and bowel - from just a half milliliter drop of urine. We also know that these dogs can pick up the scent of a VOC (volatile organic compound) way before a conventional test, thus giving us an early detection opportunity.


This research will one day lead to an E-Nose that does what the dog’s nose can, meaning we will eventually have the capability not only to detect cancer early and with high accuracy, but also non-invasively and with instant results.


I am ever humbled and honored to know some of these lifesaving dogs, who are all such fun-loving characters, living normal pet dog lives in a family home. They have no idea when they go to ‘work’ with their tails wagging and receive rewards for a job well done, just what an astonishing difference their noses are making to so many lives. All of this, in my opinion, makes them truly deserving of the title "Man's best friend!" 


Medical Detection Dogs now has a team of dogs called ‘The Super Six’ whose noses will be helping in the fight against COVID-19.


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