Can dogs detect COVID-19?
Testing for COVID-19 is now more important than ever to avoid another wave, sweeping local regions and whole countries in and out of lockdown. However, 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 prevent COVID-19 from spreading? 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 accessing the accuracy of dogs trained to detect people infected with COVID-19, especially those who are asymptomatic and aren't displaying symptoms.
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?Sniffer dogs detecting any scent will often have to pass four stages of training before they can begin working in a live environment.
The scent will be placed in a tube or on a piece of cloth. The dog will then play with it until associating the object with the odour.
Whilst the dog is watching, the object is hidden in an easily accessible area before being encouraged to find it. The object will then be hidden in more difficult areas to access. Positive reinforcement is used to encourage the dog to find the object.
The object covered in the desired scent is now hidden in an inaccessible place, without the dog watching where it is hidden. They will then be given a command to find the object and trained to signal when they can smell the desired odour.
The object is no longer used and the dog must now learn to search for the odour associated with the object.
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.
So far, results from their initial research have been promising, concluding there is high evidence that dogs can detect a person infected by COVID-19.
What traits are common in sniffer dogs?
The 18 dogs participating in the study each had an existing skill, such as detecting explosives, banknotes and disaster zones as well as diseases like colon cancer. However, dogs that have previously detected drugs were excluded from the study.
Belgian Shepherds, German Shepherds and Labradors are commonly used as sniffer dogs. However, Cocker Spaniels and Yorkshire Terriers are beginning to be used more with one reason being they can be transported in the arms of their handler easily if it's necessary to navigate difficult terrain.
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. Emirates Airline and Lebanon have been deploying dogs in airports for several weeks now, with Finland and France (in the Corsica region) also starting to carry out such tests.
As trials continue, the initial research appears to be producing positive results. The hope is that these dogs can begin wider testing on the general public to protect everyone and perform a key role in reducing 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.