Siccing the Canines on Covid-19
The hero of this story spent most of the interview on the floor. In fact, he didn’t say a word.
Toby is a working dog at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center (WDC) operated by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.
“A dog’s sense of smell is excellent,” said Jennifer Essler, PhD, postdoctoral fellow at WDC. It is so good, in fact, that dogs are being trained to recognize COVID-19. Penn Veterinary School is working to assemble a team of dogs to track down COVID-19.
Toby is not part of the COVID-19 work. However, he is able to find the eggs of the spotted lantern fly, an invasive beetle, said Dr. Essler, who is Toby’s foster mother and carer.
Work like a dog
“”[Dogs have] Up to 250 million receptor cells in the nose for smells, ”said Dr. Essler in an interview with Medical Daily.
Where do humans come from compared to dogs? “People have between 5 and 10 million, so it’s an order of magnitude larger, and [dogs] also have a larger part of their brains dedicated to processing smells, “she explained.
“I mean, dogs have great noses. There’s no question about that. But dogs don’t have the best noses in the animal kingdom,” said Dr. Essler. If the only professional qualification was the quality of the nose, she would suggest an elephant or a bear. But a bear is probably not the best job candidate for much of the work that sniffer dogs do. Standing in line at the airport is never fun, but it would be far less fun and downright dangerous if a bear were in line for you.
Every dog has his day
Just like humans, not all dogs are suitable for every job. And like with people, job fit is essential.
“Some dogs are sporadic and fast, and they want to run around very fast, and these are not the dogs that will find those tiny little spotted lantern fly eggs,” said Dr. Essler, referring to Toby’s assignment. As for these high-energy dogs, “they might be the dogs that seek victims in search-and-rescue scenarios,” she said. “It’s usually not her nose that holds her back, it’s her behavior, it’s her personality.”
Personality isn’t the only asset working dogs have. Working dogs are also man’s best friend. The dogs trained by WDC not only find smells, but also alert their dog handlers.
“The cool thing about dogs is that you can train them to find it, and then [they] Say they found it, “said Dr. Essler.” It is this relationship with people that leads them to fill this very special niche by finding hidden smells for us in many different capacities. “
You can teach an old dog new tricks
Training dogs to detect COVID-19, which is often found in human sweat, does not take place overnight. The dog handlers not only have to train dogs in the etiquette of “nose work”, they also have to specifically recognize COVID-19. Although people at home can train their dogs to do nose work, the WDC trains dogs to be experts in detecting a specific target odor, be it explosive, drug, or medical discrepancy. WDC dogs can also smell ovarian cancer; chronic waste disease found in deer; and antiques, ancient ceramics and cultural relics.
How does a dog recognize COVID-19?
The WDC dogs are trained with urine and saliva samples from COVID-19 positive people. What the dogs smell are volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. All kinds of things emit VOCs, and disease can be detected by VOCs in blood, urine, feces, sweat, and really everything else that the body emits or secretes. Although some VOCs are imperceptible to the human nose, the Journal of Biochemistry reports cases where even humans have been able to identify these smells. People with diabetes who have ketoacidosis, a serious complication of diabetes, occasionally have breath that smells like rotten apples, while people with typhoid may have a musty, yeasty odor. It is not yet known what smell dogs might perceive in COVID-19 positive cases, but researchers in Germany found that dogs had a 94% success rate.
“The potential impact of these dogs and their ability to detect COVID-19 could be significant. This study will capitalize on the dogs’ extraordinary ability to aid the country’s COVID-19 surveillance systems with the aim of expanding the community decrease, “said the center director Cynthia Otto, DMV, PhD, in a press release.
It is unlikely that anyone in the US will be greeted by a professional COVID-19 sniffer anytime soon. The University of Pennsylvania study is ongoing, but its results could make a big difference in the future.