Man’s best friend, or colonoscopy?

“Isn’t it wiser to suffer a little discomfort for a few moments than face the pain of terminal colon cancer?”

I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked this question of patients. But some still prefer playing Russian Roulette with malignancy than submitting to colonoscopy. So is “Fido” an alternative to this unpleasant procedure?

A recent report in the medical journal, Gut, found that a trained Labrador retriever was smarter than doctors in diagnosing large bowel cancer. With a sniff of a stool the trained Fido was able to diagnose this malignancy.

Researchers collected stool samples from 48 patients who had colon cancer and 258 healthy volunteers. Stools were placed in plastic containers covered by perforated lids.

A Labrador retriever was trained in the same way as those used to spot explosives and drugs, to sit down when he detected cancer in a container. The dog provided the correct diagnosis in 98% of the cancer specimens. He even made the right diagnosis in patients with early malignancy that is often hard to detect by colonoscopy.

This accuracy is an example of how to embarrass doctors in one easy lesson. How many cancer specialists would be willing to sniff poo and accept a slight reward for diagnosing colon cancer, the chance to play with a tennis ball? Small wonder that Fido is man’s best friend.

This research isn’t the first time dogs have been shown to be superior diagnosticians to doctors. In fact, some specialists need refresher Course 101 in diagnosing malignant melanomas. A study showed that dermatologists, surgeons and plastic surgeons were right only 66% of the time in diagnosing this dangerous malignancy.

I recently saw a patient who repeatedly told her dermatologist that a mole on her shoulder was increasing in size. Instead of arranging a biopsy, he became indignant and chided her for not accepting his professional opinion. Finally, she sought a second opinion and was told it was a malignant melanoma that had spread to other organs.

Several years ago the British journal, Lancet reported that a female half-Border Collie had developed an obsession with a mole on a woman’s thigh, but ignored other moles.

In fact, the dog actually tried to bite off the mole when his mistress was wearing shorts. Fortunately, this woman advised her doctor of the dog’s reaction and the mole was removed. The diagnosis? Malignant melanoma.

A dog’s ability is not limited to spotting colon and skin malignancies. A study published in the journal Integrative Cancer Therapies shows that dogs can also distinguish between patients who have early and late stage lung and breast cancer.

So what do dogs have that’s lacking in cancer specialists? Harry Truman, the plain-speaking U.S. President hit it on the head when he said, “If you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog!” But, in addition to unconditional love, dogs have a highly developed nose for sniffing cancer. The dog nose contains 220 million cells that can detect odours, compared to a mere five million cells in humans.

Dr. Larry Myers, associate professor at the Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine, says a dog’s smell is so sensitive it can smell either a single chemical or a combination of them. This ability is not limited to Labradors. Myers adds that bloodhounds are known to use their noses for hunting criminals. And he’s tested miniature poodles that could give bloodhounds a run for their money.

So is it colonoscopy, or Fido, to diagnose colon cancer? Currently there are not enough trained dogs to give colonoscopists a run for their money. For me, if a dog’s available, I’m going to see him or her. After all, no colonoscopy expert can match that 98% accuracy. Besides, isn’t a sniff or two from Fido preferable to colonoscopy? And if Fido tells me there’s no malignancy, you can be sure he or she will receive more than a tennis ball for a reward.

Many readers send me cholesterol questions. See the web site for my personal opinion. But remember I’m not your doctor. For comments