Scientists are investigating canines’ extraordinary sense of smell, hoping that it will prove a more reliable predictor of illnesses than conventional testing.
Last week, researchers presented evidence that dogs could tell from sniffing someone’s socks whether they had malaria. After several months of training, a labrador and a labrador-retriever could tell if a child had the disease even if they were not showing symptoms.
In 2015, Italian researchers announced that they had trained two German shepherds to detect chemicals linked to prostrate cancer in urine samples. The dogs were correct in 90% of cases, while the standard PSA blood test is not considered reliable enough for screening. There is an ongoing study in Milton Keynes hospital NHS trust that aims to evaluate dogs’ abilities in a normal clinical setting.
Dogs are already used by diabetics to detect when their blood sugar levels are dangerously high or low. A charity called Hypo Hounds trains dogs to smell tell-tale changes on their owner’s breath or in their sweat. The pets can detect a problem earlier than a glucose monitor.
Researchers at Manchester University are attempting to train dogs to detect Parkinson’s disease years before symptoms emerge. The work is inspired by the work of a human “super-sniffer” who detected a change in her husband’s odour six years before he was diagnosed.
Dogs are also being trialled at Buckinghamshire healthcare NHS trust for their ability to detect breast cancer. If dogs could detect this form of cancer from a woman’s breath it would allow more frequent screening; currently, women over 50 are screened only once every three years because of the exposure to radiation involved.