Dogs have nose for COVID-19, studies show. Why aren’t they used for testing?

As the availability of COVID-19 tests dwindle across Canada, another option to detect the virus in the form of a furry friend may be the next best thing.

Multiple studies show that dogs can be more effective, faster and potentially less expensive than the current tests on the market.

The research has grown since 2020, with University of California Santa Barbara professor Tommy Dickey finding the collective research shows trained scent dogs are “as effective and often more effective” than both the rapid antigen tests many people keep in their homes, and even the PCR tests deployed at clinics and hospitals.

But even with studies showing their effectiveness, COVID-19-detecting dogs are deployed only in certain jurisdictions in various countries.

One such place is the Canines for Care program at Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH), which started looking into the possibility of training dogs to detect COVID-19 in early 2021.

Dr. Marthe Charles, division head of medical microbiology and infection prevention and control at VCH, said the idea stemmed from the early reliance on laboratory testing.

“I think there was a will from public health at the time and also from the various levels of government to try to find a way that was fast, accurate and non-invasive to be able to detect and train as many people as possible,” Charles told Global News in an interview.

Three dogs — two Labrador retrievers and an English springer spaniel — were brought in for training. The dogs were exposed to items such as masks that were worn by patients either negative or positive for the virus. This trained the dogs to recognize what is and is not COVID-19.

Click to play video: 'Health Matters: COVID sniffing canine'

Charles said the dogs were trained since being puppies to associate the scent of COVID-19 with food and were rewarded each time they correctly detected a positive case of the virus.

“So from early on in their lives, they’ve associated the scent of a case of COVID to a rewarding scent,” she explained.

This reward method is not just used by VCM. It was also used with a group of dogs sourced in early 2021 for a French study, trained at detection using toys — usually tennis balls — as rewards.

Dr. Carla Simon, owner of Hunter’s Heart Scent Detection Canines in Calgary, said this method of training dogs is common. By using rewards, it can help motivate them to find the scent.

“We would pair, let’s say, the sweat samples with COVID, with their reward, and they notice that every time they find their reward, there’s that special smell,” she explained. “We just have to make it rewarding for the dog.”

She added, however, that the dog chooses the reward so trainers can ensure the canines “show up every day and want to do their job.”

Earlier this month, Dickey along with Heather Junqueira of BioScent, Inc. gathered several peer-reviewed studies into a review that was published in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine. Dickey said the number of peer-reviewed studies over the past few years went from four to 29, incorporating the work of more than 400 scientists from more than 30 countries and 31,000 samples.

The review noted the effectiveness of dogs’ ability to detect COVID-19 comes down to their noses.

Click to play video: 'Study: Sniffer dogs can detect COVID-19 instantly'

“The nose is not like humans,” Simon said. “It’s massively different, orders of magnitude different, and they can detect things without us being able to smell them.” 

Humans have about five to six million olfactory receptors in their noses, while dogs have hundreds of millions. One-third of their brain is devoted to the interpretation of smell — something only five per cent of a human’s brain is committed to, according to Dickey’s review.

The study found dogs’ noses may even be able to detect pre-symptomatic COVID-19 cases, or even those who will develop symptoms later.

Dickey told us in an interview that this could help limit or stop the virus from spreading.

“The longer the wait is between your test and your result, that’s a latent period,” he said. “During that time you’re running around spreading COVID and you don’t know it. The dogs with a direct sniff will be done in seconds.”

Many of the studies conducted, including the work at VCH through the Canine for Care program, have shown dogs’ ability to detect the disease correctly with a success rate of more than 90 per cent. Additionally, the studies also showed a high speed at which the dogs could identify cases. In one study in  Thailand, researchers reported the dogs had gone through thousands of samples in just a few weeks.

“The dogs take only one to two seconds to detect the virus per sample. Once they detect a patient, they will sit down,” said Chulalongkorn University professor Kaywalee Chatdarong, who led the 2021 project.  “This takes only one to two seconds. Within one minute, they can manage to go through 60 samples.”

Even though the research suggested deploying scent-detection dogs could also be less expensive than rapid or PCR tests, Charles cautioned the logistics that go into training the dog is where it becomes “more prohibitive.”

Click to play video: 'Dogs trained to detect COVID-19 in Vancouver hospitals'

In VCH’s case, training of the dogs included the medical microbiology lab to provide samples for use, working with infection prevention teams and control nurses, and if a dog identifies an area of concern, cleaning services may need to be utilized. And when it comes to rolling out testing using the dogs, enough staffing is needed for mass screening.

Despite this, while Charles says deploying the dogs widely could be difficult due to staffing and training, they are still one of several tools that can be used in COVID-19 detection.

“I think the way to see those dogs from my perspective is really like another tool in the toolbox and trying to prevent further transmission of pathogen of concern,” she said.

Dickey and Junqueira say dogs should have a place in “serious diagnostic methodology” including in helping should the world face a future pandemic.

A Shivering Pup’s Second Chance: The Riveting Water Tunnel Rescue

On the fateful day of July 11, an emotional rollercoaster unfolded, triggering a rapid response from both firefighters and dedicated RSPCA personnel. Their mission? To rescue a distressed dog from a perilous situation that sent shockwaves through the community.

The clock struck 2:45 PM when these heroes arrived on the scene, their hearts resolute to save the helpless pup.

Trapped and frightened, the dog had no means to break free, but the arrival of these devoted rescuers signaled a glimmer of hope in the midst of despair. Their meticulous efforts would pave the way for the triumphant liberation of the trembling canine, offering it the warmth and care it craved.

Fire Crew Rescuing Dog Image by Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service

The rescue operation was a true spectacle, featuring a symphony of ladders, teamwork, and unwavering determination. These courageous souls worked tirelessly until the shivering dog was finally set free from its harrowing ordeal. Following this remarkable rescue, the dog found itself in the loving care of the Woodside RSPCA Animal Centre, where plans were set in motion to reunite the pup with its rightful owner.

Shivering dog rescued from water tunnel Image by Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service

As the firefighters and RSPCA heroes arrived at the scene, their hearts sank at the sight that greeted them—a weary, shivering dog submerged in the frigid waters of the culvert. It was evident that this loyal companion had endured an agonizing ordeal for far too long.

With the tender care and support provided by the Woodside RSPCA Animal Centre and the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service Loughborough Station, the dog was extracted from its dire predicament with utmost care and precision, immediately wrapped in warmth and comfort.

The Castle Donington Fire Station shared their feelings about the rescue, saying, “When we reached the scene, our hearts sank as we found the dog shivering in the cold water running through the culvert. It was clear that the poor pup had been there for quite some time. So with immense care and help from the Woodside RSPCA Animal Centre and Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service Loughborough Station, we carefully extricated the dog from the culvert, providing immediate comfort and warmth. With RSPCA assistance, we made sure that this brave little soul was reunited with its owner.”

The intense rescue mission reached its conclusion around 3:20 PM, as confirmed by the Leicestershire Fire and Rescue Service.

This incident carries a poignant message for all dog owners, serving as a reminder to exercise caution when their beloved pets are in the vicinity of water bodies. The Castle Donington Fire Station underscored the importance of pet microchipping and discouraged individuals from venturing into the water to rescue their pets. Instead, they encouraged people to reach out to emergency services for assistance.

The touching rescue of the shivering dog from the water tunnel is a testament to the unwavering dedication and compassion of those who labored relentlessly to ensure the safety and well-being of this four-legged friend.

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