- Dogs could be our best friends when it comes to flagging COVID-19 infections.
- New research finds they can diagnose COVID quickly, even at levels too low for tests.
- Dogs have excellent noses for COVID, but would take training and logistical work to replace current tests.
If you’re tired of sticking swabs up your nose to test for COVID-19, rest assured that a much friendlier (and furrier) option may be on the horizon.
New research suggests COVID-sniffing dogs are as effective or even better at detecting infections compared to currently-available tests in at-home kits and clinics — so much so they could replace PCR tests as the “gold standard” for diagnosis, according to researchers from the University of California Santa Barbara.
Scientists already know that dogs can probably sniff out various types of cancer — colon, prostate, breast skin — and may be able to sense pregnancy. At first, there was little research on whether they could detect COVID, too, but a new research review has found a large body of evidence suggesting how helpful dogs can be in diagnosing the infectious illness.
The authors of the new review, published last month in the Journal of Osteopathic Medicine, looked at 29 studies — including more than 30,000 samples across 31 countries.
They said they found extensive evidence that trained dogs can accurately identify positive cases of COVID-19 through smell, which could be a less-invasive and more environmentally-friendly testing strategy than relying on plastic kits and disposable swabs.
In some cases, dogs were able to identify COVID-19 infections in patients who had a viral load too low for other tests to work, the review found.
The specially-trained canines could also diagnose quicker than other testing methods, after just a quick sniff of a person, and could also flag the virus in sweat samples in a process that takes only minutes.
Dogs have incredibly sensitive noses that make them uniquely suited to sniffing out disease, according to Tommy Dickey, co-author of the paper, professor emeritus at UC Santa Barbara, and a certified therapy dog handler.
“They can detect the equivalent of one drop of an odorous substance in 10.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools,” Dickey said in a press release. “For perspective, this is about three orders of magnitude better than with scientific instrumentation.”
And when it comes to snooting out COVID, all dogs are good dogs, according to the review. While scent dogs like hounds would be ideal, studies found that weeks of training could turn dogs of different ages, breeds, and backgrounds into virus-detecting pros.
Diagnostics could even be a career option for rehabilitating troubled pups, as one study found a so-called “problem” pit bull from an abusive home got a fresh start as a COVID detector.
Still, there are some logistical challenges to training and deploying the dogs on a large scale before we can toss out our test kits in favor of four-legged friends, according to the researchers.
“There’s quite a bit of research, but it’s still considered by many as a kind of a curiosity,” Dickey said.