Dogs are turning out to be an even better friend to man than we could have imagined.
They can spot cancer early, even before symptoms appear, through their magnificently sensitive noses. Yes, pretty amazing.
Now, for the first time, a proper investigation is being set up by doctors Clare Guest and John Church, of the charity Medical Detection Dogs, to investigate this canine skill and its use in prostate cancer detection.
Shockingly, prostate cancer now kills more people than breast cancer and the disease’s UK mortality rates have increased by 21% since the early 1970s. Experts say medical detection dogs can identify the “smell” of the disease.
This could spare many men the need to undergo unnecessary invasive tests.
Dogs’ sense of smell is 40 times more powerful than ours and can detect odours at a concentration of one part per trillion.
This means they can pick up the scent of different diseases at the earliest stage.
The charity’s 31 dogs are being trained to detect diseases that range from malaria to Parkinson’s, but prostate cancer is their main focus.
Since 2015, Medical Detection Dogs has been working on prostate cancer detection with Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Trust.
“We hope within a couple of years it will confirm previous studies we have conducted that suggest dogs have a 93% success rate,” says Dr Guest.
If proven it would put the PSA test in the shade. Three out of four men who have a PSA test receive a positive result but don’t have cancer.
Nonetheless, they may have a needle inserted into their prostate unnecessarily. This wouldn’t need to happen using dogs.
The clinical trial uses anonymous urine samples – some healthy, some cancerous – in glass pots sent from Milton Keynes University Hospital.
Each pot is put on a ‘carousel’ – a stainless steel mechanism with eight arms. “We’ve trained the dogs to walk around the carousel before stopping and sitting by a sample they sniff cancer in,” explains Dr Guest.
The dogs tend to be labradors or cocker spaniels on account of their curious, sociable natures.
They need a minimum of six months’ training, which costs the charity £11,000 per dog, after which most can correctly sniff prostate cancer within a minute.
Each dog works a minimum of three shifts a week, each comprising three 20-minute spells at the carousel.
Dr Guest’s dogs could make an initial diagnosis more accurate, as well as helping doctors develop their ultimate aim: creating a testing machine that mimics a dog’s meticulous sense of smell.
It’s just one more thing that we can love dogs for.