For some 15,000 years, dogs have been our hunting partners, workmates, helpers and companions. Could they also be our next allies in the fight against COVID-19? As a dog owner with a small poodle who could sniff out a chicken bone in the middle of a football field I was not surprised to learn this.
According to UC Santa Barbara professor emeritus Tommy Dickey and his collaborator, BioScent researcher Heather Junqueira, they can. And with a review paper published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine they have added to a small but growing consensus that trained medical scent dogs can effectively be used for screening individuals who may be infected with the COVID-19 virus.
This follows a comprehensive survey of research devoted to the use of trained scent dogs for detecting COVID. “The most striking result is that studies have already demonstrated that dogs can identify people who are COVID-19 positive,” Dickey said of their findings. “Not only that,” he added, “they can do it non-intrusively, more rapidly and with comparable or possibly better accuracy than our conventional detection tests.”
Not surprisingly, the magic lies in canine sense of smell, which gives dogs the ability to detect molecules in tiny concentrations — “one part in a quadrillion compared with one part in one billion for humans,” according to the paper. Add to that other optimizations for smell, such as a large nasal area and the structure of their noses, which allows inflow through the nostrils and outflow through nasal folds. Further, with 125-300 million olfactory cells and a third of their brains devoted to interpreting odors, dogs are well equipped with the ability to sniff out the volatile organic compounds that indicate the presence of COVID.