Canine Covid-19 Detectors

Bianca De Leon

For years canines have been trained to use their nose to sniff out cancers, malaria, and other human illnesses. With the increasing rise in Covid-19 cases across the globe as well as the overwhelming desire to restart our economy, canines are now being trained to detect the Covid-19 virus.

Canines have approximately 300 million scent receptors which allow them to detect tiny concentrations of odor. Scientists are using this unique ability to help detect Covid-19 in humans and ultimately stop the spread of this highly contiguous virus. So, what does it take to train a canine to detect Covid-19? Scientists are training canines to smell samples, most often of sweat, in sterile containers, and to sit or paw the floor when the canine detect signs of the infection. Several trials have been conducted

the pandemic began. Trials at airports in the United Arab Emirates, Finland, and Lebanon are using canines to detect the virus in passengers’ sweat samples, which are then tested against conventional Covid-19 tests. These tests are reporting an overwhelming accuracy by the canines. Scientists believe this success is due to the canine’s ability to pick up on a specific scent produced by volatile organic compounds that are generated by catabolites—substances produced by the replication of the virus that escapes the body through sweat. Other trials used saliva and tracheobronchial secretions. In a report by BMC in July 2020, it was reported that after one week of training BMC’s canines, the canines were able to detect the virus using saliva and tracheobronchial secretions, with an overall average detection rate of 94%.

While there are some limitations—one being that the FDA has not approved this method of screening—scientists still believe this is a promising first step in canine Covid-19 detection. So, promising that the Miami Heat just announced that they will be using Covid sniffing dogs to screen fans at games. According to the Heat representatives, fans arriving for the game will be brought to a screening area where a detection dog will walk past each fan. If the dog keeps going, the fan is cleared. But if the dog sits—a sign that the canine has detected the virus—the fan will be denied entry and issued a full refund. If a fan is allergic to or afraid of dogs, the fan can instead take a rapid antigen test.

For many of us—humans—detection dogs represent a glimpse of light and hope as Covid cases total over 99 million worldwide, but what about these detection dogs? As we know by now, Covid is extremely contiguous. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), dogs, as well as other mammals, can become infected with the virus after close contact with a human infected with the virus. Once infected, pets can spread the virus to other animals. Pets can also spread the virus to human, although the risk according the CDC is relatively low. Therefore, the CDC recommends that pet owners treat pets as they would any other human family members—i.e., it is recommended that pets owners not allow pets to interact with people outside of their household to avoid possible exposure to the virus. The CDC also recommends that if a person within their household becomes sick, that person should be isolated from everyone, including the household pet.

While the use of these detection dogs means decreasing the spread of the virus and restarting our economy as demonstrated by the Miami Heat and various airports, what does it mean for detection dogs? For the detection dog to detect the presence of the virus, the dog needs to come into close contact with its target, meaning the detection dog is essentially increasing its possible exposure to this deadly virus. This leads us to many unanswered questions. One question is, are these detection dogs being tested regularly for the virus? An important question especially with the discovery of the new variant—which is said to be more contiguous and more deadly than the previous variant. Another question is, if a dog test positive for the virus, what systems and/or procedures are in place to ensure the dog is properly isolated and receives proper treatment? Pets—like humans—who tested positive for Covid-19, have experienced different symptoms. Some pets have experienced mild illness while others have experienced no symptoms at all. Symptoms or not, one infected detention dog, can infect an entire airport or arena. Furthermore, Finally, if the dog loses its ability to sniff out the virus after contracting the infection—loss of smell and loss of taste being a common symptom of the Covid-19—where does the dog go? What happens to the dog? Obviously, the dog will be out of a job, but will the organization utilizing the detection dog be responsible for finding the dog a loving home similar to the practice employed with retired K9 dogs? One would hope so, as it would be inhumane and unfair for these canines to end up at crowded shelter for doing their job, but I guess only time will tell!

One Response

  1. Bianca – excellent blog! I’m doing my paper on this topic! Thanks for the interest on this research. Cheers! Michelle

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