Virus-Sniffing Dogs, virus smelling dogs, disease smelling dogs, coronavirus, COVID-19
(Photo by Chris_Tefme / BlackJack3D / iStock)

Humans have been coexisting with dogs for thousands of years. Most estimates put it around 15,000 years, or well before written history. Dogs herd livestock, protect communities, hunt wildlife, and keep us generally sane in cultures all over the world. They’ve earned the title of “Man’s Best Friend” a thousand times over and, as modern problems confront us, we’re still finding novel uses for them. As the National Guard activates a historic response, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the U.S. In our current shortage of testing equipment for the disease, dogs could be a valuable wildcard.

Virus-Sniffing Dogs

Dogs are beautiful examples of people harnessing the power of natural systems for our purposes. In this case, the natural system of evolution created wolves with incredibly sensitive olfactory (smelling) senses. We were able to, over many years, selectively breed most of the murderous ferocity out of a group of wolves while keeping the astounding senses. What we’re left with are animals in possession of unimaginably powerful detection instruments (their noses) who are willing to use them for our purposes in exchange for snacks.

In the medical field, dogs already detect specific strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in patients. They have also had success detecting malaria, tuberculosis, cancer, and a virus that infects citrus trees. Testing equipment rarely yields results in real time like a canine. Dogs also remain hardy and can perform in conditions where delicate testing equipment could not be used. So canines could be a valuable weapon in the fight with infectious disease, especially a pandemic such as COVID-19.

While it does take time to raise and train dogs for scent work, dogs with prior training can learn to alert a new scent very quickly, and one dog could process large numbers of patients in a short time. As of now the use of sniffing dogs for medical purposes is largely experimental, but the potential benefits of expanding our canine programs to diagnosing infectious disease are immense.

Bringing Dogs Into the Fight

In fighting a pandemic such as COVID-19 or malaria, dogs could work at airports, borders, train stations, and more to prevent the carrying of infections by asymptomatic patients. Officials assume COVID-19 traveled from country to country this way. The disease exhibits a characterization of a long period of time where the infected are contagious, but not symptomatic. Allowing more people tested at less cost frees up resources for treatment. In turn, people learn if they need to completely isolate themselves to avoid spreading the disease. In addition, the WHO announced that canines are not susceptible to this strain of coronavirus.

People are accustomed to bomb sniffing dogs at airports and large events; adding virus-sniffing dogs to transportation and event security would be an easy transition. In the new age of novel superbugs we find ourselves in, we should keep at hand resources to fight new diseases when they arise, including protective equipment for medical personnel, life saving drugs, and yes, canine disease detectors.

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