Dogs Might Detect COVID-19 Better Than Current Tests, Review Suggests

Scent dogs could be used for more than police line-ups. BigDane / Shutterstock.com

Dogs’ noses are incredible. From bombs and illegal substances to cancer and other serious diseases, the evidence is mounting that dogs can sniff out more than just treats under the table and working out how they can be utilized in medicinal therapies could have a huge impact on health. Now, in their constant pursuit to be everyone’s best friend, dogs may also be able to help fight COVID-19

According to a new review paper, multiple studies suggest that dogs may be better at testing for COVID-19 than even current PCR tests. Scent detection dogs could be readily deployed to hospitals for rapid testing with minimal effort, speeding up the global tracking rate of COVID-19 throughout the ongoing pandemic. 

The review was published in Journal of the American Osteopathic Association

“Dogs ‘view’ the world to a large extent with their noses rather than their eyes. Dogs are able to sense a broad range of molecules at extremely small concentrations – one part in a quadrillion compared with one part in one billion for humans, partially because of head shape (i.e., dogs, with a few breed exceptions, have more prominent noses)” says the author Professor Tommy Dickey. 

Current diagnostic tests involve invasive nasal swabs – or even anal swabs in some countries – to then be sent for PCR testing. This takes time, established labs for testing and an efficient logistics system to process many samples at once, so a more efficient system would be welcomed by many. 

Spanning four peer-reviewed articles, the review aimed to summarize all the available research for the legitimacy of scent dogs against COVID-19. Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, one so honed that it can detect volatile organic compounds (VOCs) at a fraction of the concentration that humans can. Whilst exactly what the dogs smell is not known, their noses are able to detect cancer and other diseases with high accuracy, likely owing to compounds released in the bodily fluids or the blood of affected patients. 

In the first study, performed by Grandjean et al., included eight scent dogs previously trained for cancer and explosives. 198 samples from hospital patients’ armpits were used, mixed in with control samples. Impressively, the dogs had a success rate of between 83-100%, and some even identified samples that the researchers thought to be negative but were later admitted to the hospital. 

The remaining studies varied in methodology, but 2 of them provided a 94% and >95.5% sensitivity and the last is ongoing.  

Scent dogs require more extensive testing, with results varying between dogs, but provide a promising avenue for COVID-19 diagnostics. Research continues to analyze their efficacy, and with large studies ongoing, it may be the case that dogs are deployed for large-scale testing in busy areas in the near future. 

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