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Can dogs detect COVID-19?

German Shepherd sniffer dog

Testing for COVID-19 is now more important than ever. It has been widely acknowledged that mass testing regimes will play a key role in minimising the impact of the disease. As testing is proving challenging in some environments and even in some countries, are there other reliable methods which could help detect coronavirus? Some dog behavioural experts believe the key could be in the form of our canine friends.

 

How can dogs act against COVID-19?

Since the global outbreak, researchers have been investigating the possibility of using specially trained dogs to detect COVID-19, especially in people who are asymptomatic and aren't displaying symptoms.

Canine olfactive (sense of smell) detection has proven its efficacy in numerous situations (explosives, drugs, bank notes…) including for early diagnosis of human diseases: various cancers, alert of diabetic or epileptic people in immediate alarm of crisis.
Author
— (Pirrone and Albertini, 2017)*

If proven effective and accurate, sniffer dogs could be invaluable towards the fight against the spread of COVID-19.

What are dogs trained to detect?

The dogs are specially trained to detect changes in body odour that are associated with the virus that causes COVID-19, and to indicate when they have detected it. The indication sign will vary depending upon their training but it may involve sitting down or barking.  

A reward based system is used to train the dogs (either food or a toy), and they will have to complete a specialised training programme before they can begin to work in a live environment.

Around the world, there are a number of different researchers looking into the possibility of training dogs to detect COVID-19. The Nosais Project in France at the Alfort Veterinary School is being led by Professor Dominique Grandjean and Clothilde Lecoq, who are looking into the effectiveness of training dogs commonly used to detect other substances.
The first phase of the program is to train dogs to sniff human sweat samples and see if they can differentiate the sweat odour of COVID-19 [positive] patients compared to that of COVID-19 [negative] persons.
Author
— (Grandjean et al., 2020)**

So far, results from their initial research have been promising, concluding there is high evidence that dogs can detect an odour change in people infected with the virus responsible for COVID-19.

Sniffer dogs and handlers in an airport

What traits are common in sniffer dogs?

Sniffer dogs have been used for decades and the ideal traits in these dogs are playfulness and dynamism with plenty of energy, as it can be hard work to carry out multiple searches each day. Also, a dogs sense of smell is incredibly powerful, and much better than that of a human, making it possible for them to detect COVID-19 through odours.

The 18 dogs participating in the study each had an existing skill, such as detecting explosives and bank notes, as well as diseases like colon cancer, and dogs trained in search and rescue. However, dogs that have previously detected drugs were excluded from the study.

Around the world, there are a number of different researchers looking into the possibility of training dogs to detect COVID-19. The Nosais Project in France at the Alfort Veterinary School is being led by Professor Dominique Grandjean and Clothilde Lecoq, who are looking into the effectiveness of training dogs commonly used to detect other substances.

Can dogs suffer from coronavirus symptoms?

The current spread of COVID-19 is a result of human to human transmission. According to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to date, there is no evidence to suggest that companion animals are playing a role in the spread of COVID-19. 

Find our latest guidance on the coronavirus pandemic and how this could affect your pet here.

How will these dogs be used within society?

If dogs are able to detect COVID-19 accurately, they will be helpful in airports when identifying whether it is safe for a visitor to enter a country.

As trials continue, the initial research appears to be producing positive results. The hope is that these dogs will perform a key role in helping to reduce the spread of the virus.

*Pirrone, F. and Albertini, M., 2017. Olfactory detection of cancer by trained sniffer dogs: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 19, pp.105-117.

**Grandjean et al., 2020. Detection dogs as a help in the detection of COVID-19 Can the dog alert on COVID-19 positive persons by sniffing axillary sweat samples ? Proof-of-concept study.