Study: Trained dogs can identify scent of canine cancer in saliva samples

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(SCHAUMBURG, Illinois) April 17, 2023—A new study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) indicates that dogs can be trained to use their sense of smell to distinguish between the scent of saliva samples from dogs with cancer and those from healthy controls with high accuracy, a potential screening tool that could reduce the need for aggressive treatment and improve the chances of survival for canine cancer patients.

The study (“Trained dogs can accurately discriminate between scents of saliva samples from dogs with cancer versus healthy controls”) involved six pet dogs who were trained for odor discrimination using a reward-based positive reinforcement method. The dogs were trained for a period of six months, and after the training was complete, a subset of samples not utilized during the training sessions were selected for use during scent testing. The results showed that the trained dogs could accurately distinguish between samples from cancer patients versus normal dogs with an average sensitivity of 90% and average specificity of 98%.

The researchers collected saliva samples from 139 dogs diagnosed with malignant tumors and 161 healthy control dogs for use during training and testing of the dog detection team. The samples were collected from individuals diagnosed with malignant tumors and from healthy controls. Samples from canine patients were collected prior to treatment with radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

According to the researchers, this study serves as a proof of concept that dogs can be trained to detect differences in scent between saliva samples from dogs with and without cancer. The results of the study suggest that canine scent detection may be a promising screening tool for the diagnosis of cancer in dogs, with the potential to improve the overall quality of life and lifespan of canine cancer patients.

“Early and non-invasive detection of cancer is a goal for veterinary oncology, and veterinary medicine in general,” said MacKenzie Pellin, DVM, assistant clinical professor of medical oncology at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and an author of the study. “While there is still much more research and exploration that needs to be done, our study provides a first step into a novel area of cancer detection for our companion animals.”

The researchers suggest that further studies should expand upon these results with larger numbers of dogs, varied histories of cancer, use of non-cancer diseases as controls and exploration of this technique in feline patients.

The AVMA recognizes the importance of early detection of cancer in dogs, as cancer is one of the leading causes of death in canines. The AVMA encourages pet owners to discuss screening options with their veterinarians, and to be aware of the signs and symptoms of cancer in dogs, which may include abnormal swelling, sores that do not heal, weight loss and lethargy.

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For more information, contact Michael San Filippo, AVMA media relations manager, at 847-732-6194 (cell/text) or msanfilippoatavma [dot] org (msanfilippo[at]avma[dot]org).

About the AVMA

Serving more than 105,000 member veterinarians, the AVMA is the nation's leading representative of the veterinary profession, dedicated to improving the health and wellbeing of animals, humans and the environment. Founded in 1863 and with members in every U.S. state and territory and more than 60 countries, the AVMA is one of the largest veterinary medical organizations in the world. Informed by our members' unique scientific training and clinical knowledge, the AVMA supports the crucial work of veterinarians and advocates for policies that advance the practice of veterinary medicine and improve animal and human health.