Can Dogs Detect COVID? Meet the Furry Frontline Workers

3 min read
Can Dogs Detect COVID? Meet the Furry Frontline Workers

At a time when COVID cases are surging in waves across the world, and testing kits and labs struggle to keep up, could our furry friends be the unlikely allies we were waiting for?

Thailand and other places in the world seem to think so.

The faculty of veterinary science at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, for instance, is part of a global collective of dogs being trained to sniff out COVID-19 in people, reported the New York Times.

Apart from Thailand, Finland, Australia, the US, Britain, France and Germany are some of the other countries that have put the super sniffer's skills to use for COVID-19 detection .

But what makes these canine companions potential COVID warriors?


Can Dogs Detect COVID?

Apart from the idea being adorable in itself, can dogs actually detect COVID accurately?

An increasing number of studies seem to suggest so.

“The most striking result is that studies have already demonstrated that dogs can identify people who are Covid-19 positive.”
Tommy Dickey, researcher, University of California, Santa Barbara

"Not only that, they can do it non-intrusively, more rapidly and with comparable or possibly better accuracy than our conventional detection tests,” Tommy Dickey, researcher, University of California, Santa Barbara was quoted by IANS.

The study being conducted at Chulalongkorn University use Labrador retrievers—known for their keen sense of smell. Although Labradors can be expensive (costing up to $2000 in Thailand), overall the expenses turn out to be lower than that of RT-PCR tests.

Moreover, these dogs being trained in Bangkok can reportedly detect COVID with an accuracy of 96.2% in controlled settings.

This stacks up impressively well against RT-PCR tests which are considered the 'gold standard' of COVID testing and have an accuracy of around 90%.

How do they do it?

According to a study published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, dogs have 125-300 million olfactory cells. Compare this to the 6 million that humans have!

Not only that, a third of their brains are devoted to interpreting odours. This means that dogs are capable of sniffing out the volatile organic compounds that are indicative of the presence of COVID.

Research in the deployment of dogs to detect other ailments such as cancer, and Parkinson's in early stages have previously shown encouraging results.

In fact, these COVID specific studies have found them to be more accurate than rapid antigen tests. They are also cheaper and faster than polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests.

Can Furry Frontliners be the future of COVID testing?

When it comes to training these dog corps, the hope is that they will be able to detect COVID-19 infected people in public spaces or crowded establishments, like airports and stadiums.

Not to mention, at a time when COVID detection is proving challenging on multiple fronts, dogs helping in mass detection could help significantly cut the cost of expensive COVID testing, as well as speed up the whole process.

Moreover, it is also very safe considering there have been no reported cases of household pets transmitting COVID to humans.

Though there have been some rare cases of dogs catching COVID from their infected owners, the risk is considerably low.

There are, however, many questions that will need answering before dogs can be used as a replacement for our tried and tested COVID testing contraptions, like whether the dogs will be able to differentiate vaccinated people from COVID positive patients, and whether they can detect new variants.

(Written with inputs from the New York Times and IANS.)

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