Dogs have been humans’ best friends for thousands of years, but during this global pandemic, they could earn an even bigger title: lifesaver. For years, dogs have been trained to sniff out drugs and people trapped in rubble, and more recently, they’ve been able to predict seizures, hypoglycemia, and even cancer.
Now, a U.K.-based charity called Medical Detection Dogs (MDD) is collaborating with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and Durham University to train dogs to use their powerful sense of smell to detect the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Extensive testing for COVID-19 is crucial in the fight against the pandemic, but there is still a shortage of these tests in many countries, including the United States. Other countries, like South Korea and Germany, have been able to significantly flatten the curve by providing early care to those testing positive, especially those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly.
For years, MDD has successfully trained dogs to detect malaria, prostate and colon cancer, Parkinson’s, and bacterial infections. They’ve extensively researched the science of the canine sense of smell and believe that they can train dogs to detect this latest threat. Dogs are able to detect subtle changes in the temperature of the skin, so they could be able to detect when a person is running fever.
Professor Steve Lindsay at Durham University said, “If the research is successful, we could use COVID-19 detection dogs at airports at the end of the epidemic to rapidly identify people carrying the virus. This would help prevent the re-emergence of the disease after we have brought the present epidemic under control.”
The animals could be used to identify travelers infected with the virus who are entering a country. They would also be able to be deployed in other public spaces to identify individuals who may be unaware that they could be spreading the highly infectious disease.
“The dogs could be ready in as short as six weeks to help provide a rapid, noninvasive diagnosis towards the tail end of the epidemic,” said Dr. Claire Guest, Chief Executive and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs. “In principle, we’re sure that dogs could detect COVID-19. We are now looking into how we can safely catch the odor of the virus from patients and present it to the dogs.”
This method will allow the dogs to screen even people showing no symptoms as a sort of triage to determine who needs to be tested.
Professor James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM, said, “Our previous work demonstrated that dogs can detect odors from humans with a malaria infection with extremely high accuracy—above the World Health Organization standards for a diagnostic.”
“We know that other respiratory diseases like COVID-19 change our body odor, so there is a very high chance that dogs will be able to detect it. This new diagnostic tool could revolutionize our response to COVID-19 in the short term, but particularly in the months to come, and could be profoundly impactful,” he said.
There are numerous heroes that are emerging daily during this global pandemic—from health care workers and first responders to truck drivers and grocery store workers. It looks like we may be able to add dogs to that list in the near future.
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