5 min read


Can Dogs Sense Cancer?



5 min read


Can Dogs Sense Cancer?


The family pooch lying leisurely by the fire holds a wealth of talents. To you, they may be an adored Akita or Maltese, but to people with cancer, they could be a lifesaver. 

How did dogs make their journey from wolves who roamed the earth to medical detector dogs that can sense various types of this disease? Our physician mutts are blowing the lid off science as experts salute the family pet and let us in on their outstanding abilities. Will the future see Dr. Dobermans checking us for cancerous growths and offering a woof opinion to whether it's malignant or benign? 

For centuries, dogs have been our devoted companions and now their powerful sense of smell is being put to the test. Do you think dogs can sense cancer? It's time to find out the truth.


Signs Your Dog Could Detect Cancer

Dogs are the sniffing guardians of the galaxy, with a nose that can take in the most intricate scent. Every breed on the planet can smell underground and down the track as they search for missing people and stop huge wads of cash being smuggled over the borders.

 It's not surprising that pooches are detecting cancer, as it's all relative to a dog's potent senses. Ever notice how two dogs greet each other? Both pooches are in sniffing overdrive as they spin around to check out each other's rear end and what there is to know about this mutt. It’s not like the window to the soul, but a way of checking out what's up with the new woofer at the dog park.

Cancer-detecting dogs are trained the way bomb- and drug-sniffer dogs are to find that elusive scent. The best news is our dogs are inhaling architects that can also sense cancer in its early stages. Melanomas that labs may have tested as benign have turned out to be malignant when a dog is on the job. Homeo Animal tells us a dog can pick up the subtle smell even if the cancer is at stage zero. 

Humans see all with their eyes while dogs take in the world at large with their noses. The CEO of Medical Detection Dogs tells how her clever red lab called Daisy detected her breast cancer. CNN reported that Daisy kept staring at her pet-mom and then lunged at her chest. Eventually, a tumor was found and thanks to Daisy’s early detection, the cancer could be treated.

Body Language

Some signs a pooch can sense cancer are:<br/>

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Whining
  • Jumping Up
  • Paw Raised
  • Licking

Other Signs

More signs a dog is able to detect cancer include:<br/>

  • Getting Your Attention
  • Licking Part Of A Person'S Body Continuously
  • Nuzzling An Area Of Their Guardian'S Body

History of Dogs Sensing Cancer


Ancient dogs were in the business of healing humans at a Grecian sanctuary in the fourth century. It is thought dogs were observed licking their wounds and the practice was repeated with people. This place of healing was dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine.

Our canine medics were considered sacred as they licked parts of a person’s body to heal their pain. The ancient Egyptians were on the same page, believing woofers' saliva was medicinal and could heal an open wound. From generation to generation, the notion that a dog’s saliva could cure all ills has survived to the present day.

Thousands of years ago there were no Boxers, Border Collie’s or Yorkshire terriers walking the earth. The grand-daddy of the family hound was an extinct grey wolf that lived in a pack and hunted to survive. It is said a wolf’s keen sense of smell enables them to pick the weak link in a herd of animals they are hunting, implying they are able to determine if another animal is sick. International Wolf Center verifies that wolves target the weak, ill, or old as their first choice of prey. 

Wolf Country tells us a wolf can smell their dinner up to 1.75 miles away, so it seems likely our dogs inherited the capacity to smell cancer the way their grandpa wolves sense the weak prey.

Science Proves Dogs Can Sense Cancer


In the late 80’s, Yuji Satoh was already training water rescue dogs in Tokyo and saw the potential for dogs to find people who had drowned. At the time, most thinking about what dogs could do was neutral, so this dog-lover-lecturer continued with studies to discover dogs can smell and find just about anything.

Great ideas are formulated in the most unusual ways, as this curious soul wondered if his Labrador retriever (named Marine) could be trained to detect cancer. Trying to get samples from hospitals proved impossible and Yuji Satoh was all but ready to give up when a friend intervened and found a hospital willing to help. Samples of esophageal cancer, stomach cancer, and lung cancer were offered and over the course of a year and approximately one hundred tests, his dog achieved a 98% success rate detecting cancer!

He discovered that dogs can smell cancer by sniffing a person’s breath and further research is directed at pinpointing the odor that tells the dog that cancer is present. Future planning is for a device that can check our breath to see if we have this deadly disease. Thanks to the natural smelling mechanism of dogs, we could see a time when cancer is easily and quickly detected!

Training Dogs to Smell Cancer


It's clear - dogs have a natural instinct for picking up on illness in other animals and humans, with countless stories about untrained pups letting their guardian know they had cancer.

Miranda had been feeling unwell for quite some time and was diagnosed with the flu until her rescue, a Labrador/Pointer mix named JJ, started licking her neck. Miranda trusted her dog and pushed for more tests. According to Home.Bt, her pooch JJ was right, as his pet-mom was found to have thyroid cancer.

Training a pooch to detect cancer is a similar process to teaching a pooch to sniff out drugs or explosives. Dogs are selected for their willingness to learn and fine-tuned sense of smell. Basic obedience training begins at eight weeks old and from there, young woofers are taught to sniff for their favorite toy or tennis ball. Positive encouragement and rewards are the staples of sniffer-dog training.

The New York Times takes us on a tour of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, where Labradors and German Shepherds appear to be the dogs of choice. The most suitable pooches for cancer detection are those with a meticulous, reserved approach to their work, as opposed to pups out in the field that need high energy levels for finding a lost person or detecting bombs in war-torn lands. Put a set of glasses and a white coat on a cancer-detecting pooch, and you have a cancer-sniffing scientist pup.

Two vials containing fluid, with one holding cancerous material, are presented to a trainee-pup. Once the right vial is chosen, they are rewarded with their toy. Its a process of repetition and inspiring a dog to sniff out the correct scent.

Dogs are blowing the cancer research world away as they smell the cancerous cell before scientists can test it with their equipment. This is nature at its finest, helping humans to fight a terrifying disease that takes one in four people in the U.S. yearly!

Have questions or concerns about your pet?

Chat with a veterinary professional in the Wag! app 24/7.

Get Vet Chat

By a Japanese Chin lover Linda Cole

Published: 04/17/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

Wag! Specialist
Need to upgrade your pet's leash?

Learn more in the Wag! app

Five starsFive starsFive starsFive starsFive stars

43k+ reviews


© 2023 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.