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This is a great story:

British researchers have trained dogs to detect bladder cancer by sniffing human urine, opening up the possibility that dogs – or electronic noses modeled on their snouts – may one day be used to detect the disease.

The study, published in the British medical journal BMJ on Saturday, is the first to demonstrate scientifically that dogs can detect cancer through smell, its authors said.

Animals. Diseases of the rich. What more could you ask for in a news item? I agree that sex, celebrities, bad behaviour by an American Presidential candidate, Nazis and football are all absent, but several of these themes could be woven into this yarn in due course.

At the risk of being accused of saying that Chinese people are dogs, which is not at all what I am trying to say, I have long understood that Chinese doctors use smell – of urine, breath and so on – as a major diagnostic tool. So it does not surprise me a bit that dogs, with their famously keen sense of smell, might have a lot to contribute to medicine. This is not a “How very odd” story. It is not odd at all. I am only surprised that no one has thought to study this possibility sooner. I suppose such research depends on moderately cheap diagnosis by other means to be researchable without enormous expense. On the other hand, if the other diagnostic methods were already very cheap, there would be no need to bother with dogs.

My favourite bit of this New York Times report is this one:

In an intriguing side note to the British study, all six of the dogs detected cancer in the urine of a man who was thought to be cancer-free and was used as a control. When he was tested further, he was found to have a kidney tumor, and his life was saved.

That is the best sort of scientific evidence: the killer (to use a wildly inappropriate metaphor) anecdote.

More here, with links to the BMJ article and to a BBC report last week.

7 comments to Dogtors

  • llamas

    Not just Chinese doctors, or, more properly, practitioners of Ancient Chinese Medicine, a fancy modern term for an ancient quackery.

    There is a relatively rare genetic disease of infants, which consists of of the inability to digest certain proteins, and which is more prevalent in the communities of certain religious sects such as the Amish and the Mennonites. It is known as MSUD, for Maple-Syrup Urine Disorder, and gets its name because a positive sniff test on the diaper is considered to be a virtually definitive diagnosis.



  • zmollusc

    You can identify several infections by the smell of the patient’s sputum.

  • David Oakes

    Still waiting for the Dog and Cat Scan joke….

  • Alasdair

    David – you were SO close …

    But this sort of thing has been around for a long time … have you not heard fo “Lab tests” ?

    (innocent grin)

  • Harry

    When are the animal rights people going to step in and put a stop to this nonsense? Imagine poor Fido being forced to sniff cups of human urine all day.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Brian, I am puzzled.

    In what way is bladder cancer a disease of the rich?

  • Denise Walker

    I’ve heard of dogs that can smell skin cancer, too.