Dogs help humans in countless ways. Specially trained dogs work side-by-side with police officers, firefighters and military personnel. They also help humans with physical, mental and emotional disabilities, and now we know how dogs are helping in the fight against cancer.

Cancer is a devastating disease that effects virtually everyone in one way or another. If you haven't been diagnosed with the disease, there is a good chance that someone close to you has been – maybe even your beloved pet. Cancer is not a human-specific disease. It effects dogs in much the same way as people.

Let's Talk: How Dogs Are Helping in the Fight Against Cancer

Dogs are actually helping in the fight against caner in multiple ways. We're learning a lot from studying canine cancers, specially trained dogs can now sniff out cancer in humans and therapy dogs are even helping to improve the lives of humans who have been diagnosed with cancer.

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Canine cancer studies

Interest in comparative oncology – the study of cancer across all species – has been growing steadily in recent years, and a lot of the research is being done on dogs. Since a dog's lifespan is much shorter than a human's, clinical trials performed on canines could shave years off the research process and make the process much less expensive.

How Dogs Are helping in the Fight Against Cancer
Photo: ucdvetmedphoto

Back in 2005, preliminary mapping of the canine genome was completed. This was a HUGE advancement in veterinary medicine. Dogs diagnosed with cancer now receive many of the same treatments as humans including radiation, surgery and chemotherapy. A canine melanoma vaccine is on the market now thanks to this research, and many other melanoma vaccines are also in the works.

Scientists are also working on connecting the links between tumor markers shared by humans and dogs. They are also trying to find the genes that cause certain breeds to be more susceptible to certain types of cancer. This research could eventually lead to insights about why some human cancers are passed genetically through families.

Research being performed in canine clinical trials is giving scientists clues about cancer's development and possible treatments. Cancer research is also performed on mice, but mice don't develop the disease naturally; it has to be induced. Therefore, observing the development and progression of cancer in dogs is much similar to the way the disease behaves in humans and in turn more beneficial in the comparative oncology field.

Cancer sniffing canines

It may sound silly, but in case you haven't heard, dogs can smell cancer in humans. Dogs can smell in parts per trillion. Now, I know that probably doesn't mean much to you, so let me explain it this way. One cc, which is less than one drop, of blood could be diluted in the amount of water that it takes to fill 20 olympic-sized swimming pools and a dog could still detect the blood!

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It sounds crazy, but many oncologists say that they can tell when a patient has stage 3-4 cancer, because they can smell it on the person's breath. Whether that is the case or not, cancer most definitely has a unique smell and some experts have trained dogs to identify it.

Some dogs can identify cancer in a patient when it is at stage 0, meaning it isn't even detectable by modern medicine yet.

How Dogs Are Helping in the Fight Against Cancer
Photo: liz west

There are studies that prove that dogs can detect cancer through scent. Researchers are currently trying to use this information to create a breathalyzer that can detect cancer as early as a dog's nose can. So far, the canines are in the lead.

Service dogs helping humans diagnosed with cancer

Understanding how dogs are helping in the fight against cancer isn't as simple as what they are contributing to the medical field. There are trained therapy and service dogs helping cancer patients around the world every day. That may quite possibly be their most significant contribution to the battle.

Of course any dog lover will tell you that the emotional support they get from a dog can usually beat the support received by humans. Dogs do not judge us. We have no reason to feel self conscious around them. They are absolutely the best support for a person struggling with a terminal diagnosis.

The support provided by our canine companions provides:

  • relaxation
  • a feeling of safety
  • socialization
  • distraction
  • a tactile sensation (the feeling of petting a dog releases endorphins that lower stress and improve your mood)

Service dogs can also be a helping hand to patients trying to become more independent why recovering from cancer treatments or surgery. They can assist patients feeling weak who may need help walking or standing. Service dogs can carry packages, groceries or other objects, and they can also turn on lights and open doors.

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This kind of help can be pivotal in a cancer patient's recovery process. Studies have been done to prove that dogs can benefit humans going through treatment for cancer. Whether they are offering physical help or emotional help, it's safe to say that having a dog around would make a big impact on the well-being of a cancer patient.

From helping us learn about the disease itself to physically providing aid to those struggling with treatment, man's best friend is trying to help us battle this terrible illness. Understanding how dogs are helping in the fight against cancer is an ongoing process. New research is being done everyday, and we're sure to see new canine-related breakthroughs in the future.

Now it’s your turn

Do you have a story about a canine helping a loved one who was going through cancer treatment? Have you signed your dog up for a clinical trial focused on cancer research? Please feel free to share your experience in the comments below.

Samantha’s biggest passion in life is spending time with her Boxer dogs. After she rescued her first Boxer in 2004, Samantha fell in love with the breed and has continued to rescue three other Boxers since then. She enjoys hiking and swimming with her Boxers, Maddie and Chloe.