Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
March 28, 2024 ·  3 min read

Dog Owner Claims Her Husky Sniffed Out Her Cancer 3 Times

This article was originally published in December 2019

Any dog owner knows that our pups are good for our health. They force us off our couch to go outside for walks at least once a day, and nothing lifts our spirits more than the unconditional love of our precious pooch. But could it be that our furry friends have an even more important role to play in our health and longevity?

Stephanie Herfel in Madison, Wisconsin claims that her Husky, named “Sierra” has saved her life three times now, by detecting her ovarian cancer.

Sierra’s Nose Knows

woman with her pet Husky
Source: ABC7

Six years ago, Stephanie began experiencing some lower abdominal pains. She didn’t think much of it until her husky Sierra came and put her nose on Stephanie’s belly. Though unusual behavior for her dog, she didn’t pay much attention to it until a few days later. She found Sierra curled up upset in the back of a closet.

“(Sierra was) curled up in a little ball with her nose under her tail. Her little face was completely wet and her eyebrows were crunched,” Stephanie said. [1]

The stomach pain and Sierra’s strange behavior were unnerving, so Stephanie decided to visit her doctor. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with stage three ovarian cancer.

After six months Stephanie’s cancer went into remission, and unfortunately, it returned 3 more times. However, each one of those times, Sierra successfully sniffed-out the returning cancer, an incredible feat. 

Can dogs actually smell cancer?

It is well known that dogs have a sense of smell that is far superior to that of humans. Their smell receptors are 10, 000 times more powerful than ours, giving them the ability to accurately smell things in which we have no hope in even catching the faintest scent of. [2]

Heather Junqueira, lead researcher at BioScentDX, decided to put man’s best friend’s nose to the test. She and her colleagues trained four beagles to learn the difference between samples of blood with normal serum levels and those from patients with malignant lung cancer. Though one of the three dogs did not want to participate, the other three had a 96.7 percent accuracy for cancer-containing samples and a 97.5 percent accuracy for detecting healthy samples.

What makes a dog’s nose different?

For starters, the human nose has about six million olfactory receptors, compared to our canine compatriots’ 300 million, and a much larger portion of their brain is dedicated to analyzing odors. [3]

On top of all of that, dogs actually smell differently. When they inhale, they breathe in through the large part of their nostrils but breathe out through the slits in the sides of their nostrils, so breathing and smelling are actually done separately. Their noses also have a much more complex internal structure with a greater surface area for deciphering scents. [3]

Lastly, they have a second sniffer, or olfactory system, that we don’t even have. This vomeronasal organ (also known as Jacobson’s organ), is at the bottom of the pup’s nasal passage that allows them to smell pheromones. [3]

New potential for cancer detection research

Junqueira explained to Science Daily the two new exciting paths our pups could lead to new cancer detection tools.

“One is using canine scent detection as a screening method for cancers, and the other would be to determine the biologic compounds the dogs detect and then design cancer-screening tests based on those compounds.” [2]

Not Puppy-proof yet

Though this is an exciting new development, there is still much work to be done. Other studies have had mixed results, so you should still be heading to your doctor for regular screenings. [3] That being said, it’s clear our canine friends have extraordinary abilities, so pay attention! You never know what your dog might be trying to tell you.