Disease detection


New methods developed in the United Kingdom for the early detection of human diseases using the dog’s sense of smell are now sweeping the world. Specially trained dogs are able to detect and mark melanomas (skin tumours) by sniffing patients and prostate or ovarian cancers by sniffing urine.

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Other dogs have been trained to warn diabetes sufferers when they need to inject themselves with insulin, or to alert epilepsy sufferers of an approaching seizure.

This fledgling field will without doubt expand in the future. Indeed, rats are already being used in Gambia to diagnose tuberculosis of the lungs.

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Cancer Detection Dogs

Our first study, entitled “Canine Olfactory Detection of Human Bladder Cancer a Proof of Principle”, was published in the British Medical Journal, September 2004. This was the first scientifically robust study to support anecdotal reports that dogs may be able to identify the odour of cancer.

Over the centuries, physicians have been aware that many diseases have a characteristic odour. Dogs are renowned for their sense of smell, some estimates putting a dog’s sense of smell up to 100,000 times more sensitive than ours. Cancer cells are known to produce chemical compounds that differ from those made by normal cells. It is therefore not unreasonable to think that some may have distinctive odours. It is anticipated, in the long-term, that these findings will lead to the production of an electronic nose machine that GPs can use in surgeries. We believe from the current information that this may well be a possibility. We are currently establishing to what degree of accuracy the dogs can indicate the presence of different cancers, what odour signature the dogs are using to detect the presence of cancer and to what extent, if any, the dogs can distinguish between various types of cancers.

Diabetes Hypo Alert Dogs and Medical Assistance Dogs

Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar levels) itself, or the avoidance of it, is an acute daily problem for people with diabetes but when accompanied by loss or a partial loss of warnings, it can be life threatening and have a dramatic effect on the person with diabetes and their families. Diabetes hypoglycaemia alert dogs are trained to become sensitive to glucose changes in people who have rising or falling blood glucose levels. These levels are believed to give a different scent than blood sugars in the normal range. Following training the dogs are able to alert their owners and get help even before the symptoms of both hypo and hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar levels) are felt. For those living with a life threatening health condition, having an assistance dog can make a huge difference: a better quality of life, freedom, confidence and independence. They reduce the responsibility of care and worry for relatives and carers and often enable people to return to work.

In addition awareness of hyperglycaemia can reduce the very damaging long term health effects for people with diabetes. We also train Medical Assistance Dogs to detect and alert to potentially fatal health conditions such as an Addisonian crisis. In an emergency, anyone with Addison’s disease can experience symptoms of extreme weakness, a serious drop in blood pressure and confusion. The dogs are trained to alert prior to an episode.


Claire Guest MSc
Buckinghamshire NHS Hospital (United Kingdom)
Chief Executive of Cancer and
Bio-detection Dogs

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