Downeast Dog News

Detection Dogs For COVID-19

By Judith K. Herman DVM, CVH | Sep 01, 2020

Q. Did I hear right? Dogs are being trained to detect the COVID-19 virus?

A. Yes, you heard right. Dogs have an amazing nose. They have 300 million scent receptors while we only have 6 million in our nose. The dog’s sense of smell is their strongest sense where ours is eyesight.

In early spring, the University of Pennsylvania College of Veterinary Medicine started a pilot program training 8 dogs to sniff out the COVID-19 in saliva and urine. In a process called imprinting, these dogs are trained to identify virus positive samples. Once the dogs have learned to identify the COVID-19 samples, they will then be tested to identify positive samples from normal human saliva and urine. All this will be done in a laboratory.

Dogs have been trained for decades to accurately detect drugs, bombs, cadavers, bed bugs, and medical conditions. Scent detection dogs can accurately detect low concentrations of odor. In medicine, these dogs are trained to detect low concentrations of volatile organic compounds associated with various diseases. Some of the diseases dogs are being used to detect are ovarian cancer, bacterial infections, and nasal tumors. The volatile organic compounds are present in human blood, saliva, urine, or breath.

In Germany, the University Veterinary Medicine Hanover has successfully trained dogs from the armed forces to detect the virus in 5 days. These dogs can correctly identify COVID-19 from a thousand samples of human saliva from sick and healthy people 94% of the time. Their next step is to see if the dogs can identify COVID-19 infections from other diseases, such as Influenza.

Detecting the virus early is immense when looking at controlling outbreaks. Because COVID-19 has been found in asymptomatic people, the value of training dogs for accurate detection is high. These dogs can be used in airports, sports events, anywhere there is a crowd.

Another point to note is that dogs are at low risk of becoming sick from the virus. These specially trained dogs will not be put in harm’s way doing their job.



Judith K. Herman DVM, CVH

Animal Wellness Center

Augusta, Maine