Can Dogs Sniff Out COVID-19 in Humans?


For pet owners and fosters alike, dogs have offered a unique sense of comfort, companionship and happiness even in the midst of a stressful and uncertain time. Now, researchers are looking into ways that dogs can do even more to help humans during this pandemic. 

It’s well known that a dog’s incredible sense of smell is their superpower. Specially-trained dogs have used that sense of smell to discover medical conditions such as diabetes, malaria and Parkinson’s disease in people. 

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, along with Medical Detection Dogs, a nonprofit, and Durham University are investigating whether dogs can also be trained to help sniff out the coronavirus in humans, otherwise unaware that they’re carrying the virus. 

"The aim is that dogs will be able to screen anyone, including those who are asymptomatic and tell us whether they need to be tested," said Dr. Claire Guest, CEO and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, in a press release. "This would be fast, effective and non-invasive and make sure the limited NHS testing resources are only used where they are really needed."

Researchers will intensively train dogs for six to eight weeks to prepare them to tackle this task. They predict that, should this be an effective supplement to ongoing COVID-19 testing, dogs may be able to "triage up to 250 people per hour." 

The researchers are not certain that COVID-19 has a specific odor yet, but believe there’s a good chance given that other respiratory diseases have one. If COVID-19 does cause a unique body odor, researchers believe dogs should be able to detect it. 

According to Medical Detection Dogs’ website, this training will be as safe as possible for animals to perform. The dogs will spend time in training rooms with samples and will indicate when they’ve discovered the coronavirus sample. To keep dogs from potentially getting the coronavirus on their skin or coats, the handlers will keep dogs from touching the samples directly—they’ll only smell the air surrounding the sample. 

Medical Detection Dogs has also launched a crowdfunding campaign to help support this research. 

Ultimately, researchers will have more insight into the potential testing capabilities dogs have. Once society adjusts back to a more normal day-to-day, these highly trained dogs can serve in public spaces and entrances, such as at the airport, to sniff out any coronavirus carriers. These specially-trained dogs may also help keep another wave of coronavirus cases at bay.