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Can dogs sniff out COVID-19?

A dog sniffing disease samples

A dog sniffing disease samples

A dog’s sense of smell is much stronger than a human’s, detecting everything from aromas in the air to organisms in the dirt. Now, it is possible that canines may be able to smell the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Scientists think canines’ keen sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than that of humans. Hunting and tracking breeds, such as bloodhounds, beagles and golden retrievers, have especially excellent noses for scents.

German shepherds are commonly used to locate explosives and illegal drugs. And in the laboratory, a variety of dogs are being used to sniff out urine and saliva samples containing diseases such as malaria, cancer and Parkinson’s.

At PADs for Parkinson’s in Washington state, the animals are trained to detect the scent associated with the neurological disorder. There is currently no medical test to diagnose the degenerative disease.

According to PADs for Parkinson’s program director Lisa Holt, “It takes weeks of training, and at least 400 exposures to the scent of Parkinson’s, before a dog even begins to recognize it.”

After years of research, the group is now using a “canine assessment” to help some people determine if they have early onset Parkinson’s. They wear a T-shirt for several days that absorbs oily skin secretions. After it is returned to the lab, dogs smell it for the disease.

Research for cancer is being conducted at the In Situ Foundation in California. Founder Dina Zaphiris uses samples that dogs sniff to detect the early stages of the disease, including lung and breast cancer. She said research has shown that “dogs are often more accurate at detecting cancer than the screening methods currently used.”

Now, two groundbreaking efforts are underway in the United States and Britain to teach dogs to sniff out the scent of the novel coronavirus.

At the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, eight Labrador retrievers are being exposed to human samples with and without the coronavirus to see if they can identify it.

Since “dogs have not been used previously to detect coronavirus, it is hard to say if it will be more difficult or potentially less difficult,” Cynthia Otto, the centre’s director, told VOA. “We need to first confirm that there is an odour associated with the virus and that we can detect it in the samples.”

A similar study is taking place at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. James Logan, head of the department of disease control, is working with Medical Detection Dogs, a British charity, to train six canines to sniff out the coronavirus.

“We know that respiratory diseases like COVID-19 change our body odour, so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it,” Logan explained. “This new diagnostic tool would revolutionize our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful.”

Claire Guest, co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said, “In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect the coronavirus. We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odour of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs.”

Otto, of the Working Dog Center, said if her research is successful, “We will then determine if the dogs are able to screen live humans, and do it safely and accurately.”

“The aim is that dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic," Guest explained. “This would be fast, effective and noninvasive.”

Along with testing and vaccine research, dogs’ highly sensitive noses may be on the front lines to tackle the worldwide pandemic. Canines could possibly be used to test people for the disease at hospitals, airports and businesses. 

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