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Do dogs offer us a solution to our detection dilemma?

Written by Science

Durham University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have teamed up with the charity, Medical Detection Dogs, to investigate whether dogs can be used to ‘sniff out’ COVID-19 infections.

Medical Detection Dogs is a charity that was set up in 2008 by Claire Guest after her dog, Daisy, detected her breast cancer saving her life. Since its launch, research carried out by the charity has been vital for people with long-term conditions and for the diagnosis of specific diseases. 

These incredible dogs have been trained in diagnostics and been used as medical alert assistants. Research has found that dogs can detect certain cancers such as prostate cancer, as well as being able to detect some neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s. This is done simply through the smelling of samples taken from patients. These dogs are also used by people with conditions such as diabetes or heart problems to alert the owner to take their medication or to move to a safe space. 

Research has found that dogs can detect certain cancers such as prostate cancer, as well as the neurological diseases.

The chemicals within your body change in a diseased state or during an emergency associated with conditions such as diabetes or Addison’s disease. It is this change in volatile compounds in the body that can be picked up by dogs because of their incredibly sensitive noses. Their ability to detect these changes is down to the fact that they have 60 times more scent receptors in their nose than humans; 300 million dogs versus 5 million in humans. 

Testing and tracking of a virus such as COVID-19 is crucial for its control. Previous research has shown that viruses have an ‘odour’ and dogs have successfully detected viruses in cattle. By using the dog’s extraordinary abilities to detect changes in these compounds within the body during an infection, a non-invasive, non-contact test could be provided.

The study, run by the Medical Detection Dogs, will begin by understanding how well the dogs can detect the virus and whether this is feasible. This research will use randomised and double-blind trials and it is thought that this study will cost around £500,000. The study will start with 6 dogs dubbed the ‘Super Six’ – Norman, Digby, Storm, Star, Jasper and Asher – who will tell us whether the Medical Detection Dogs will be useful as bio-detectors for COVID-19. It could take as little as 6 weeks to train these dogs who will then enter 3 months of double-blinded trials before their potential deployment. 

It could take as little as 6 weeks to train the dogs for 3 months of trials.

The samples used to train and test these dogs will be collected from healthy and infected individuals, and will be made non-infectious during the trials, to ensure the safety of the trainers and dog owners. If proved to be effective, more dogs could be trained and used to establish whether or not a coronavirus test is required in a non-invasive and non-contact way making safer screening possible. If deployed in airports and ports, the screening of those entering the country could be feasibly carried out quickly and easily, thus reducing the risk of imported cases and possible resulting infections. The wonderful ability of these dogs could allow tests to be used efficiently and save money and lives.

You can find out more about the charity and how to support them here.

Last modified: 24th May 2020

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