The smell of dogs is their star sense. Much more developed than that of human beings, it allows them to follow trails, locate lost people or detect the presence of different drugs. In addition, they are even capable of identifying different diseases that affect humans.
Given the current pandemic, could dogs help us diagnose COVID-19? In this ScoobyDog article, we are going to explain where the studies are to find out if dogs detect the coronavirus.
The prodigious smell of dogs
The olfactory sensitivity of dogs is much higher than that of humans, as has been shown in different studies that show surprising results on this great canine capacity. This is your most advanced sense. A very striking experiment was that of the distinction of uni or vitelline twins. The first were the only ones that dogs could not distinguish as different people, having the same smell.
Thanks to this amazing ability they can help us in many different tasks such as truffle location, hunting prey tracking, drug detection, bomb pointing or disaster rescue. Although it is perhaps a more unknown activity, dogs trained for it can detect the onset of crises in certain diseases and even some of them in an advanced stage.
Although there are breeds especially gifted for this, such as hounds, the marked development of this sense is a trait that all dogs share. This is because your nose has more than 200 million odor receptor cells. Humans have about five million. Furthermore, the olfactory center of the dog’s brain is highly developed and the nasal cavity is profusely innervated. Much of your brain is dedicated to interpreting smell. It’s better than any sensor that humans have created. Therefore, it is not surprising that in this time of pandemic studies have been initiated to determine if dogs can detect the coronavirus.
How do dogs detect diseases?
Dogs’ smell is so fine that it allows them to detect diseases in people. Of course, it requires prior training , in addition to current advances in medicine. The olfactory ability of dogs has proven its effectiveness in the detection of pathologies such as prostate, bowel, ovarian, colon, lung or breast cancer, diabetes, malaria, Parkinson’s or epilepsy.
Dogs can smell the specific volatile organic compounds or VOCs that occur in certain diseases. In other words, each pathology has its own characteristic imprint that the dog is capable of discovering. In addition, it can be done already in the initial stages of the disease, even before medical tests can diagnose them , and with an efficiency close to 100 percent. In the case of glucose, dogs are able to warn up to 20 minutes before the rise or fall of their blood level occurs.
The early detection is critical to improving the prognosis of diseases such as cancer. In the same way, anticipating glucose rises in the case of diabetics or epileptic seizures is a very important benefit and a huge improvement in the quality of life of those affected. In addition, it helps scientists to identify biomarkers with which to later develop tests to facilitate diagnosis.
Basically, dogs are taught to look for the characteristic chemical component of the disease that they want to detect. To do this, they are offered samples of feces, urine, blood, saliva or tissues, so that they learn to recognize the odors that they will later have to discover directly in the sick person. If this is the case, they sit or stand in front of the sample to inform that they are perceiving the indicated odor. When they work with people, they can warn by touching them with their paw. Training in this discipline lasts several months and, of course, is done by professionals. In view of all this scientific evidence, it is not surprising that in the current situation scientists have wondered if dogs detect the coronavirus.
After years of experience in detecting diseases, it is not risky to say that dogs detect the coronavirus . In fact, at the University of Helsinki they have just completed preliminary tests in which they have verified this ability of dogs. In addition, they detect disease faster and more sensitive than the tests that are currently being used.
Positive tests with the DogRisk group of dogs
The trained dogs of the DogRisk group have managed to identify the virus in urine samples . For this reason, they are currently in the phase of collecting more samples to train more dogs and determine what exactly they identify and how long that smell remains after the infection has concluded. In addition, they are making it difficult for dogs to work, including urine samples without coronavirus, but with other respiratory diseases, to confirm their sensitivity. They hope to move on to direct detection work soon.
Super Six dogs: in training process
In addition, also in the UK, there is a canine team training for the detection of COVID-19. It is made up of six dogs and they are the Super Six (the Superseis). Three are cocker spaniels and are named Norman, Jasper, and Asher. There is a labrador retriever that goes by the name of Star and a cross of this breed with a golden retriever, named Storm. The last component is Digby, a labradoodle. They are between 20 months and 5 years old. The goal is for them to detect the smell of the virus in less than a second and to be able to do so with both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients. Therefore, rapid and non-invasive diagnoses would be achieved. To do this, they are collecting breath and sweat samples coming from sick people. This project is being carried out by the Medical Detection Dogs organization together with the University of Durham. They hope to finish the training in 6-8 weeks to start working directly with people. The idea is that they do not contact them, but smell the air around them to minimize any risk.
In addition to these teams, dogs are also being trained in the United States. Specifically, at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School they are working with eight dogs. They are expected to be ready in a matter of weeks.
On the other hand, various organizations in Spain and other parts of the world are also considering the option of training dogs to detect COVID-19.