Researchers in the U.S and U.K. are on a mission to see if dogs can sniff out COVID-19 in humans. Read on for the details!

Can Dogs Detect COVID-19 Before Symptoms Appear?

Researchers in the U.S and U.K. are on a mission to see if dogs can sniff out COVID-19 in humans. It’s no secret that dogs have super-sniffing powers. Detection dogs are routinely used to sniff out the scents of cancers, Parkinson’s disease, seizures, diabetic sugar imbalances, and malaria. Plus, we can’t forget their nose work in detecting bombs, narcotics, explosives, drugs, missing persons, and the list goes on. If bio-detection dogs are successful in detecting COVID-19, it will be a game-changer!

Professor James Logan, PhD from The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) says,

“If successful, this approach could revolutionize how we diagnose the virus, leading to the rapid screening of high numbers of people, which could be profoundly impactful and help get our lives back to some sort of normality.”

The dogs could potentially screen 250 people an hour!

A Dog’s Nose – The Facts

  • The canine nose can be anywhere from 10,000-100,000 times more sensitive than a human nose.
  • A dog has up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their nasal cavity, whereas a human only has up to 6 million.
  • Canines possess the ability to analyze scents they are sniffing at a rate of 40 times greater than a human. 
  • Dogs can smell through each nostril independently so that they can actually identify what direction a smell is coming from.

The Backstory

Medical Detection Dogs is a charitable organization in the UK that trains dogs to detect specific odors generated by human diseases. Every disease has a unique odor. Dogs are trained to recognize these scents from samples of urine, breath, sweat, etc. 

Medical Detection Dogs is funded by donations and does not normally receive government funding. But, for the COVID-19 project, the government has given them funding in the amount of €500,000.

Source: Medical Detection Dogs Facebook Page

The Team

Training and trials are being conducted by Medical Detection Dogs, The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), and Durham University. This is the same team that set out to prove dogs could be trained to sniff out and detect malaria.

According to Professor James Logan:

“Our previous work has shown that malaria has a distinctive odor, and, with Medical Detection Dogs, we successfully trained dogs to accurately detect malaria. This, combined with the knowledge that respiratory disease can change body odor, makes us hopeful that the dogs can also detect COVID-19.” 

Training and Trials

Phase one includes the gathering of samples at London hospitals from patients infected with the novel Coronavirus. Then the dogs will be trained to recognize the odors. 

Phase two the dogs will progress to live scenarios of individuals with COVID-19.  

The Dogs

The six dogs making up the “COVID Dog Team” include:

  • 3 cocker spaniels
  • 1 labrador
  • 1 labradoodle
  • 1 lab/golden retriever mix
Source: Medical Detection Dogs Facebook Page

Training is expected to take between 6 – 8 weeks. If this trial is successful, the first team of dogs could be on the beat in UK airports within six months. 

Dr. Claire Guest, CEO and Co-Founder of Medical Detection Dogs, says:

“Our aim is that some of these amazing 6 dogs will be able to passively screen an individual, including those with no symptoms, and tell our dog handlers whether they have detected the virus. This will then need to be confirmed by a medical test.” 

How Are The Dogs Trained?

According to Dr. Claire Guest,

“The samples that the dogs will be trained on at the centre will be deactivated (dead) virus and therefore of no risk to the dogs or handlers. When sniffing people the dogs will not need to make contact but will sniff the air around a person. The dogs will therefore not be in direct contact with the people screened to prevent the risk of spreading the virus.”

Dogs are trained using reward-based methods and clicker training. When a dog correctly identifies a sample – he is rewarded.

Research In The U.S.

Philadelphia, PA

The University Of Pennsylvania’s School Of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia is conducting a canine scent detection study of its own. Eight dogs will be introduced to novel coronavirus positive saliva and urine samples in the laboratory. The goal of this phase is for the dogs to differentiate between COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative samples. They’ll train for 3 weeks where they will be monitored for accuracy of detection. If the dogs are successful in the first part of the training, they’ll progress to working with individuals who are positive for COVID-19.

Watch and listen as Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, and lead person in this study, explains the process: