Rescue dogs saving lives by helping detect cancer

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For a dog that has been abandoned, abused, or neglected, being given a loving home is wonderful, and finding a way to put their skills to work is even better.  That’s the case for the dogs that Dina Zaphiris, a pet owner and dog trainer from West Hills, California is working with at the Pine Street Foundation.  She is training dogs to sniff out ovarian cancer from a person’s breath.

Zaphiris was initially inspired to do this type of work by her mother’s struggle and eventual death to cancer.  “These dogs would rather find the cancer sample than a steak,” she said.  The procedure is fairly simple; first, healthy people and ovarian cancer patients are instructed to breath into sample jars that contain a piece of cloth. The samples are slotted into a specially made trough and then the dogs are allowed to sniff the samples. When they correctly detect cancer, they are given a reward.

Schatzi was about to be euthanized when she was saved and brought into the program. She has turned out to be one of the most consistent detectors, never having missed a cancer sample.  While this is not the first study using dogs to detect cancers, it is the first and only federally-funded study on using exhaled breath as a diagnostic tool for ovarian cancer.  It is hoped that this will become a more mainstream and non invasive way to diagnose cancer earlier than screenings or blood tests might.

Michael McCulloch, research partner on the current ovarian cancer study and director of the Pine Street Foundation adds that breath has been used to detect disease for centuries so the concept is not new.  “Who will win out in the end: Is the dog more accurate or is the laboratory more accurate? Is it the lab or the Lab?” he pondered.

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