Dogs can smell cancer
August 19, 2011 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Recent research on whether dogs can smell lung cancer supports prior research on the subject, which concluded that dogs can smell both lung cancer and breast cancer.

Research has also shown that dogs can smell bowel cancer and ovarian cancer (which apparently smells different from both cervical cancer and endometrial cancer), as well as bladder cancer, prostate cancer, and skin cancer (in each study, correctly identifying cancer in a patient the researchers had believed to be cancer-free).

But what exactly does cancer smell like? So far, at least, we don't know.

posted by johnofjack (38 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Puts a whole new meaning to "your breath smells like death."
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:28 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

So, they can detect these cancer odors through the crotch?

Because that seems to be where dogs are always sticking their noses on me when I encounter them....
posted by hippybear at 7:29 PM on August 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

Most humans would prefer not to know what cancer smells like, and would prefer to leave the detecting to Man's (and Woman's) Best Friend.

I must use this information to troll my cat-loving acquaintances. Of course, maybe cats can smell it too - they just don't care enough about humans to let you know...
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:31 PM on August 19, 2011 [6 favorites]

Cats can smell it. They just don't give a flying fuck if you die.
posted by spitbull at 7:32 PM on August 19, 2011 [37 favorites]

Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "Lab test".

Sorry....Well, not really. But dogs are awesome.
posted by angiep at 7:37 PM on August 19, 2011 [11 favorites]

Surprisingly, it smells like ham to them.
posted by Joey Michaels at 7:46 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

So, they can detect these cancer odors through the crotch?

The lengthy story I heard on the AM radio especially talked about bowel and ovarian cancers, and I was actually pondering this.

If it was more accurate for the dog to sniff your date rather than your breath, what would we do as humans? Would vanity get in the way? Would there have to be an extra chapter for the ethics board to consider before giving the go ahead for the testing to proceed?
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:47 PM on August 19, 2011

I know I would get fewer dates.
posted by spitbull at 7:52 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

1. I wonder if this is a remnant of their herd-thinning wolf ancestry.

2. Maybe the dogs are causing the cancer. Sniffs of death!
posted by Sys Rq at 8:10 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

So one morning, I got out of bed, and had to go pee, of course. My dog follows me into the bathroom and stands there, sniffing every square inch of me as if he'd never smelled whatever he was smelling, for a good minute or so. Really intrusively sniffing me while I'm sitting on the toilet trying to pee, for crying out loud.

Ten days later, the home pregnancy test came up positive.

And he did it again, three years later. Both times, before I'd even missed my period.

I have no problem believe a dog can smell cancer.
posted by ambrosia at 8:14 PM on August 19, 2011 [45 favorites]

posted by hippybear at 8:18 PM on August 19, 2011 [60 favorites]

Both awesome and believable. Dogs are like little GC-MSes with fur and tails.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:20 PM on August 19, 2011

My dog can smell ennui.
posted by Doleful Creature at 8:31 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

There's a Lab that comes into the clinic where I work weekends that is a certified therapy dog. The young girl that she watches over is not only paraplegic, but diabetic. This Lab, who I've only seen "off-duty" as her normal goofy Lab-self, has woken the parents when their daughter's blood-sugar dropped to dangerous levels. How the fuck this works, I can't say, but it's not unheard of. I'm just baffled and kind of in awe by the whole prospect of it.

Given what we've found and been able to hone in the badass-ness that are dogs, there's very little that would surprise me.
posted by Ufez Jones at 8:45 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

great, my beagle just bit my nose and gave me bill for $300.
posted by clavdivs at 9:28 PM on August 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe this explains why they're constantly sniffing ass.

"Uh, Chopper? I don't know how to break this to you but you better get yourself to a vet."
posted by loquacious at 9:31 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Clavdivs: The dog sniffs YOU, not you the dog. Geez.
posted by Goofyy at 10:05 PM on August 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

My dog's name is 'Doctor'. It is apt in so many ways.
posted by trip and a half at 10:18 PM on August 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in a place with a lot of people who are not in wonderful health. Certain dogs here know when you are not well. They will they will come up and look at you as if to say they wish you felt better.
I had several cats that were the same way. One cat I had died and the other cats came before he passed, they curled up around him to keep him warm. They licked him because he could not bathe himself, despite the fact I was cleaning him with a wet wash cloth.
They showed every sign of grief too.
Cats are not so cold hearted as some think. They just are harder to understand than dogs. Dogs have been around people longer.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:18 PM on August 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

To be brutally blunt, if dogs are sniffing your crotch it probably means that you're not taking care to shake all the dew off your lily. A drop of piss soaked up in your drawers drives them nuts and they want to check out who has marked that territory.
posted by Horselover Phattie at 11:11 PM on August 19, 2011

There was a Nova episode that discussed how dogs relate to people. One of the things dogs apparently watch is one eye(don't remember left or right, I think left) because people always cue there interest with one eye before the other, and for dogs its really important to have that extra 50 milliseconds of notification about what is important to you.

Dogs understand latency and how important it is in human communication, but they are not human.

I've been around dogs forever, and finding out the gradient of their attention to us astounded me.

Plus, they're fluffy, and like their belly scratched.
posted by dglynn at 1:55 AM on August 20, 2011 [5 favorites]

So, when can I schedule my first annual COCS?
posted by likeso at 2:12 AM on August 20, 2011

LULZ aside, I had breast cancer ten years ago and am dealing with a recurrence right now. My former guy used to nose aside my arm when I was reading and just rest his head on the affected breast. My current guy has a big nose and likes to poke the same spot, as if to say, "Ya got something going on there, eh?" and has noticeably tempered his young-boy behavior to match my chemo-induced exhaustion. He literally stops and braces to support me as I trudge up steps or lean on him when I bend or reach. He loves to sniff my bald head, kind of snuzzle it, whereas in the past he wasn't terribly interested in my hair. And on chemo days, he gives me the nose-over, processing my altered scent. Not to mention, best. friend. ever.
posted by thinkpiece at 2:51 AM on August 20, 2011 [27 favorites]

Even beyond cancer detection, I never, never doubt research about dogs being perceptive beyond what is easy to explain. I have a very sharp memory of watching Jimmy Smits' last episode of NYPD Blue in the living room, lying in a recliner and crying. Not sobbing out loud, just crying, with some tears running down. Our wonderful dog came around the back of the chair so that he could put his big old head on my shoulder and watch it with me. He never did this normally; it was completely a comforting reaction to my being upset, very much the way you'd snuggle up to someone who was sad. I was enormously touched by it and never forgot it. Pets are ... really, really cool.

Cancer cells being a physical phenomenon and dogs being so reliant on their sense of smell, I don't doubt this at all.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 3:51 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

All my dog can smell are those empty cans of spam i leave in the trashbin. They define him, I think, as a being.
posted by gideonswann at 5:07 AM on August 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have often wondered how dogs make it through a typical day without going completely bonkers. And they do it without meds!
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 6:13 AM on August 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

dogs make it through a typical day without going completely bonkers

This assumption is flawed... :P
posted by Drexen at 6:27 AM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

People can, too.

My father, for a good year or so, was worried that my mother had cancer. He pushed her to get checked at least once, and maybe twice. He said he could smell cancer in the house. He talked about it several times.

Turned out it was him. He died a couple years later of esophageal cancer.
posted by Malor at 7:16 AM on August 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh my goodness, Malor. I wasn't expecting your story to end that way. I'm sorry.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:11 AM on August 20, 2011

@ Malor: Ouch! :(. @ Thinkpiece, I hope all goes well. I am sure your dog is a help.
I had a co worker once who had very advanced breast cancer, and believe me I could smell it. It was an awful smell. She was a clean person too. She had gone to some kind of alternative doctor and she did not get the right care. :(.

I kept urging her to go see a proper doctor. Sadly she did not.

Anything that gets people checked out and treated early enough to do some good is a good thing.

I do have a sharp nose. I notice smells other people do not notice.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:31 AM on August 20, 2011

Doleful Creature: My dog can smell ennui.

But can it smell
posted by Hairy Lobster at 11:55 AM on August 20, 2011

On the internet, nobody knows that you're a dog Katjusa Roquette.
posted by hippybear at 1:54 PM on August 20, 2011

Already credited with sniffing seizures, once again, canines prove to be human's best friends.

FWIW, I've already had a cat who learned my seizure aura before I did - she even helped me learn to recognize it because she had a specific entanglemyfeet manuver we eventually saw she only did just before a clonic-tonic. She'd stay during the seizure, and behave affectionately just after I came around. My current cat runs away and hides.
posted by _paegan_ at 2:11 AM on August 21, 2011

I phrased it punningly, but my earlier question was very serious: when are we going to be able to get sniffed as an annual scan, instead of costly, invasive, and sometimes even inconclusive and/or inaccurate testing often performed late in the game?!
posted by likeso at 2:55 AM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

when are we going to be able to get sniffed as an annual scan

There's so much talk about therapy animals these days, and a lot of offices have animals on premises routinely anyway... seems like having an office dog who also has a specific "tell" when it smells cancer or whatnot would be greatly beneficial to the practice.

It would also likely keep any patients who have animal allergies out of the doctor's patient pool. Not sure exactly what to say about that.
posted by hippybear at 6:12 AM on August 21, 2011

Ooh! How about a Canine Sniff Clinic housed at the local shelter, with referrals from GPs? And possibly including one dose/round of antihistamines, etc. for the allergic?
posted by likeso at 7:00 AM on August 21, 2011

I encounter tens of head and neck cancer patients weekly. When I began my training, I would hear some of the attending physicians remark on how someone "smelled like cancer" and I didn't know what it meant. I thought it was a figurative statement, as in "this situation smells a little fishy."

I was wrong.

Squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck (i.e., oral cavity, throat, voice box) has a distinctive and unique, yet subtle, scent. I don't know if it is the necrotic process it induces in the linings of those body parts or if the cancer cells themselves produce a substance that has that specific aroma. I can imagine that the super-physicians of decades past relied on this particular characteristic of the disease as a diagnostic marker. Even today, we whippersnappers, with our fancy scans and tests, develop a gestalt in diagnosis which likely factors in scent, albeit unconsciously.
posted by robstercraw at 12:12 PM on August 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

« Older Does Rather More Than a Spider Can: Genetically...   |   Anselm Kiefer Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments