A trained scent dog sniffing urine samples has accurately detected whether or not patients have thyroid cancer in 88% of cases, according to US researchers.

Findings of the study, undertaken by scientist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and presented at the Endocrine Society's 97th annual meeting in San Diego, show that the dog’s diagnostic accuracy is only slightly less than that of fine-needle aspiration biopsy, generally the first port of call to test for thyroid nodules for cancer.

Lead researcher Donald Bodenner, chief of endocrine oncology at the UAMS, noted that current diagnostic procedures for thyroid cancer “often yield uncertain results”, leading to recurrent medical procedures and unnecessary surgery. “Scent-trained canines could be used by physicians to detect the presence of thyroid cancer at an early stage and to avoid surgery when unwarranted,” he said.

On a cautionary note, Cancer Research UK’s Emma Smith has questioned the practicality of using dogs on a wide scale to detect the disease. “But carrying out lab tests to understand what the dogs are smelling might help to inform the development of 'electronic noses' to detect the same molecules, which could lead to better diagnostic tests in the future,” she noted.

The researchers plan to expand their program by collaborating with Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Auburn, Ark, by reportedly re-training bomb-sniffing dogs to sniff out thyroid cancer.