As winter settles in, the number of COVID-19 cases is rising at an alarming rate around the world. And with a vaccine still months away, scientists have been searching for new ways to contain the virus. One solution has shown surprisingly promising results: sniffer dogs.
Dogs have long been used by law enforcement to detect drugs and other contraband in passenger luggage, in large part because dogs have an acute sense of smell. Dogs’ discerning sniffers are not only able to detect even trace amounts of illegal drugs, butthey can also be trained as service animals, able to detect cancer or even predict when an epileptic patient is about to have a seizure.
Scientists have sought to harness dogs’ discerning olfactory sense to detect the presence of coronavirus, even in asymptomatic passengers. Let’s have a look at how it works.
The Finnish Experience
In September of this year, The New York Times published a story about the use of trained canines to detect COVID-19 among passengers arriving at Helsinki airport. The test was completely voluntary, and passengers who wished to take it simply agreed to provide a sweat sample via a sanitary wipe. Dogs were then isolated with the samples and went to work. During training, the trainers made a specific sound whenever a dogindicated a positive sample. Through a system of praise and reward, dogs were able to detect a coronavirus-positive patient from the sweat sample in as little a 10 seconds.Patients who show a positive test result are directed to seek care at the airport’s health center. The Helsinki pilot program began with just 16 sniffer dogs but is hoping the program’s success will result in expansion.
The German Experience
Scientists and the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hanover, Germany, used saliva samples from potentially infected patients to train sniffer dogs to detect the virus. Within just one week of training, dogs were able to correctly identify COVID-19–positive patients with a 94% accuracy rate.
Do Dogs Have Magic Sniffers?
Dogs’ noses are ideally suited to sniffer work. Humans, for example, have about 6 million olfactory receptors to help us distinguish aromas. Dogs have 300 million. Also,the anatomic structure of the canine nose is trap aromas in a series of swirls. If that weren’t enough, dogs have a “second nose”—called Jacobson’s organ—located at the base of the nasal passage at the roof of the mouth. It’s theorized that this organ helps young pups identify their mother’s milk. Together, these smell-enhancers give dogs the power to detect and discern individual odors, even from small samples.
Does Coronavirus Have an Odor?
Scientists are still working out exactly how dogs can detect a person’s coronavirus status, even when no symptoms are evident. What’s clear is that some biological processes occurring within COVID-positive patients trigger a change in the smell of a person’s sweat. And that change is what the dogs can detect. Both American and French groups are currently attempting to determine exactly what changes the animals ate detecting. But for now, the results are encouraging.
What Does This Mean for the Future?
Investigators in Great Britain, Germany, France, and the United States are currently are studying the applicability of virus-sniffing dogs in their nations. While no specific breed has been singled out as preferable for this sort of work, the temperament of individual animals will determine whether they can work effectively in a busy, outside-the-lab environment. But don’t be surprised to see sniffer dogs working the arrival terminal.
Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.