When coronavirus took over our lives more than a year ago now, there were many things we hoped could save us: social distancing, PCR testing, a vaccine. Sure, they’ve done wonders – but there’s a late-comer to the saving-our-lives party that is a whole lot cuter… dogs. Or should we say, covid sniffer dogs.
That’s right, a study published this morning has found that people who are infected with coronavirus give off an odour dogs can detect – and shockingly, they can detect it even faster than a PCR test and more accurately than a lateral flow test.
Naturally, we have questions. Can my dog detect coronavirus or is it just covid sniffer dogs? Does that mean when my dog didn’t stop sniffing me last week I had coronavirus or was that just the Nandos I had for dinner? Will covid sniffer dogs actually become a thing?
Well, we’re here to answer those questions for you. According to the study, the dogs involved were trained for eight to 10 weeks to become a ‘Covid-19 detection dog’. Spaniels, retrievers and Labradors are particularly good for detecting across the board, with most born into the occupation and the rest rescue dogs donated to the cause.
Unfortunately, that means your own dog is unlikely to be able to detect coronavirus on you – yes, it was just the Nando's – but when dogs are trained in this detection, the accuracy is phenomenal. The study states that dogs could detect Covid-19 on clothing worn by infected people with up to 94.3% sensitivity. Currently, lateral flow tests can only detect coronavirus to a sensitivity of 58-77%, while PCR tests come in at a much higher 97.2% (that’s why you’re sent for a PCR test if your lateral flow test is positive).
Dogs are one of the most reliable biosensors for detecting the odour of human disease.
The dogs were also able to sniff out the disease when it was caused by different variants, and when the person had no symptoms or low levels of the virus in their system. According to Claire Guest, Chief Scientific Officer at charity Medical Detection Dogs, which trained the animals, the results are ‘further evidence that dogs are one of the most reliable biosensors for detecting the odour of human disease.’
The animals did, however, incorrectly flag a small percentage of people as having coronavirus when they didn’t. The research term therefore does not recommend that dogs alone are used to detect coronavirus, rather they be used as an additional screening tool alongside conventional test.
‘We are now certain that dogs would be best used as a first, rapid screening tool, followed by a confirmatory PCR test for only those individuals indicated as positive by the dog,’ the research states.
It’s important to note that this research hasn’t been peer-reviewed, which means other scientists in the same field haven’t evaluated the work yet (peer-reviews assess the quality of the research, and are often used to maintain the integrity of science by filtering out invalid or poor-quality studies).
Will covid sniffer dogs be at airports?
That being said, covid sniffer dogs could well become part of our effort to detect and control coronavirus. Finland has already started rolling out programmes with Covid sniffers dogs at airports, with France and Lebanon engaging in their own trials too.
Whether or not we’ll see covid sniffer dogs in the UK remains to be seen, it would be expensive and time-consuming to scale up the training efforts – but given how much people are willing to do to get back on holiday, we don’t doubt seeing a few extra sniffer dogs at the airport would be a welcome addition to our coronavirus controls.