Can Dogs Be Trained to Sniff COVID-19?

Researchers are training dogs to sniff out the COVID-19 virus.

Posted Apr 22, 2020

dog-4958432_1920 Pixabay Scottslm
Source: dog-4958432_1920 Pixabay Scottslm

They say the dog is man’s best friend, but dogs may also be our best hope when it comes to solving the current COVID-19 testing crisis.

Many experts believe that in order to reopen the economy and return to a sense of normalcy, widespread testing must occur. But testing supplies are in short supply. U.S. states are currently competing not just with other states but with countries worldwide to get access to limited COVID-19 testing supplies, including cotton swabs and chemical agents. But like a scene out of Lassie, here come dogs to the rescue.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) are currently training medical detection dogs to sniff out COVID-19 in humans. The training is expected to be completed within a month and if successful, a single dog would be able to sniff 750 people per hour, or up to 5,000 people a day.

Although proof of concept is still needed to demonstrate that dogs can sniff out the COVID-19 virus, there are good reasons to assume this will be the case. In the past, dog sniffers have been used to detect cancer, Parkinson’s, and even malaria. As James Logan, head of the Department of Disease Control at LSHTM stated, “We know diseases have odors—including respiratory diseases such as influenza—and that those odors are in fact quite distinct. There is a very, very good chance that COVID-19 has a specific odor, and if it does I am really confident that the dogs would be able to learn that smell and detect it.”

If this is true, the use of sniffer dogs as a diagnostic tool could revolutionize the battle against the virus. Once trained, these sniffer dogs could be placed at ports of entry to identify infected travelers entering the country. They could also be used at other major public spaces—like screening children/teachers at schools or medical staff at hospitals—to identify infected individuals who require self-quarantine. Sniffer dogs would present a fast, effective, non-invasive, and cost-effective way to identify infected people, including those who are asymptomatic. In turn, this would allow officials to reserve the actual testing kits for situations in which they are most needed.

Dogs have already been serving us well during the pandemic. Cities like L.A. and New York have seen pet adoption increase by 70% since the pandemic started and many of us are turning to our pets for comfort during these stressful times. But if this training program is successful, man’s best friend may also be a vital weapon in our battle against the pandemic.

Click here to learn more about Jasper the Cocker Spaniel, Digby the Labradoodle, and the other dogs involved in this initial training study.