Can dogs really detect cancer?

A small town in northeastern Japan is testing a new cancer-detection method with the help of dogs. The effort led by the local government is drawing attention from the medical world and municipalities across the country.

“Do you consent to taking a test with the cancer-detection dog?” a public-health nurse asked a resident in the town of Kaneyama, Yamagata Prefecture, who came to a municipality-organized medical checkup in May.

“Can dogs really smell cancer?” the 62-year-old woman asked herself. Everyone there looked puzzled with the new experience.

The urine of people with cancer has been found to smell different from that of those who do not have the disease. The idea is to use dogs with super-high olfactory abilities, such as Labrador retrievers, to check people’s urine and identify cancer at an early stage.

Mogami, a northern region of the prefecture that includes the town of Kaneyama, population 6,000, has one of the highest rates of cancer mortality in the country. For female patients with stomach cancer, the rate is the worst in the country. High consumption of salty, preserved foods, typical of heavy-snow regions, has been partly blamed for high cancer rates.

Hoping to remedy the situation, the town sought advice from Masao Miyashita, a Nippon Medical School doctor who has studied canine cancer detection. The municipality secured 11 million yen ($98,100) to conduct a study of the test relying on dogs, in addition to conventional X-ray based diagnosis.

Double checking

People taking the canine detection method submit a urine sample before their checkup. These samples are sent to the medical school’s Hokuso hospital in Chiba Prefecture, where Miyashita serves as deputy director, and a portion of each sample is analyzed with special equipment. The rest is sent to a private training center for cancer detecting dogs located in the same prefecture, and goes through the dog-smelling test. Results are sent to the examinee in about three months.

Research and promotion of canine cancer detection began about 10 years ago in Japan. Miyashita earlier tried to introduce the method in another municipality, but the attempt failed due to financing and other hurdles. The case in Kaneyama is the first municipality-wide operation of the method in Japan.

According to Miyashita, detection dogs demonstrated 99.7% accuracy in distinguishing a box in which a cancer patient’s sample is placed, from four other boxes with samples that are not affected with cancer. In addition to urine, the trained dogs can smell differences in breath to pick up cancer patients.

A latest study also suggests that dogs can identify which parts and organs are affected — with colon or breast cancer, for example.

“This particular method is less harmful to examinees than other detection such as blood tests,” said Miyashita. “It is effective for early detection of cancer.”

In May through September, some 600 Kaneyama residents aged 40 years or older took the dog-based cancer test, and several were found to have cancer. The effort is luring flocks of visitors from other municipalities. “We want to show that this method can help lower the cancer mortality rate,” said one municipality health care. “We want to help spread this method throughout the country.”

The town aims to offer the test to 1,000 residents a year. The pilot operation will last for three years, during, which the town will collect and trace follow-up data of residents who test cancer-positive based on the dog-detection method. It will then consider whether to continue the project.

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