Can dogs sniff out Covid-19?

If you are feeling fed up with sticking an oversized cotton bud down the back of your throat and up your nose, then there could be good news on the way for you. Research is still in its early stages, but there are promising signs that dogs can sniff out Covid-19 more accurately than a lateral flow test, and in some cases even better than a PCR test.


Incredible noses

Dogs have long been known for their incredible sense of smell. Our four-legged friends have around 300million scent receptors in their nose, compared to our feeble 5million. This allows them to sniff out all kinds of subtle smells that simply pass us by. Sniffer dogs are a common sight at big events, where they are used to sniff out explosives, and they are also used at ports and airports to sniff out drugs in luggage.


Medical detection dogs

Scientists have capitalised on this amazing ability by using residential dog training to teach dogs to recognise the signs of illness in diseases such as type 1 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. Instead of needing doggy day-care, these dogs are the ones doing the caring. They can smell the pre-cursors to several emergency events, such as a sudden deterioration in their owner’s health or a potential seizure, and then warn them to take appropriate or preventative action before it happens.


Sniffer dogs and Covid

Given the incredible abilities of dogs, and their track record in sniffing out disease, many researchers set out to see if dogs could be used to detect Covid-19. Studies are still in the early stages, but so far, they have shown a great deal of promise. One study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), found that dogs could sniff out Covid-19 on clothing with an accuracy of 94.3%. By comparison, lateral flow tests are only 77% accurate at best, and PCR tests are only slightly better at 97.2%. What’s more, the dogs detected the disease in a matter of seconds, far faster than either of the standard tests.


Mass testing

At this stage, scientists are not suggesting that your local testing centre swap their swabs for Springer Spaniels, but sniffer dogs could be useful for scanning large crowds at airports, sporting venues and concerts. In a Lebanese airport study by Saint Joseph University in Beirut, dogs were used to screen 1680 passengers. They sniffed out 158 cases of Covid-19 that were later confirmed using PCR tests. In another study at the University of Hannover dogs sniffed out positive cases of Covid-19 with 83% accuracy, and negative cases with 96% accuracy, easily beating lateral flow tests.


Are sniffer dogs the future?

While the data so far looks very encouraging, the studies have only been on a relatively small scale, and very few results have been formally published or peer reviewed. “No one is suggesting (sniffer dogs) can replace PCR tests,” says Holger Volk from the Hanover study, “but they could be very promising.” If larger studies can replicate the incredible results seen so far, sniffer dogs could soon become a convenient, cost-effective way of rapidly screening large crowds for Covid-19, without any of the unpleasantness of that horrible swab stick.


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