I had difficulty accepting this: while it’s undeniably a rigorous process for human beings to become skilled physicians, some dogs are apparently just “born with it.” The first dog to make headlines for saving her human from cancer did so in 1989. Knowing dogs, my guess is that they’d been trying arduously, and in vain, for centuries to tell us that they could spot disease processes on (and in) humans. As a species, we can be a bit oblivious. Dogs all over the world probably heaved a giant sigh of exhaustion when we finally decoded the message. Lassie rolled over in her grave.

See, this woman had a melanoma skin cancer on her leg, but her doctors hadn’t recognized that yet. It’s notoriously difficult to gauge the threat level in this type of skin lesion before it is surgically removed. That results in a lot of harmless lesions going to surgery and a decent amount of dangerous lesions being ignored. The dog just wouldn’t leave this lady alone, so she went to the doctor and had it removed. It turned out to be a dangerous tumor, and the dog stopped bothering her immediately. Since the abnormal spot was removed early, before doctors could even become suspicious of it, this woman was completely cured of an otherwise very aggressive disease. The dog probably got a piece of cake or something and then fell back into her normal routine. As a species, we can be a little self-centered.

Thanks to that case, we’ve recognized the same story playing out over and over during the intervening three decades. People’s dogs can identify oncoming seizures and narcoleptic episodes as well as low blood sugar in their owners, not to mention the various skin cancers (even ones that the patient and doctor have never laid eyes on). I suppose it makes sense, considering the fact that smelling is their thing, but I have to admit I’m a little hurt that a random, mixed-breed rescue dog with absolutely no training could outperform medical professionals who have devoted their lives to this career. Did I mention that humans can be a little pouty?

The next step was for humans to set aside their pride and play a supporting role in refining dogs’ ability to identify tinier and tinier samples of diseased tissue. To that end, we discovered that dogs can find cancer in one drop of blood, identify COVID carriers from one whiff of sweat, and locate dangerous C-diff contamination in hospital wards. They can diagnose Parkinson’s disease years before it shows any symptoms and pick out malaria patients using just a sock. They can work with urine and fecal samples or even a puff of a person’s breath. We shouldn’t be surprised, I suppose, given the fact that they can locate drugs, bombs, guns, and even submerged human remains when given the correct guidance. I’m still a little hurt, though.

Next time, how a dog may change the entire course of medicine in exchange for a slice of cake.

Dr. M.S. Regan