COVID-19: Let The Canines Out

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COVID-19: Let The Dogs Out

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) who works in the University of Pennsylvania 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 used to detect COVID-19.

Toby himself can find the eggs of the spotted lantern fly, an invasive bug, despite not being part of the COVID-19 work, said Dr. Essler, Toby's foster mother and carer.

Work like a dog

"(Dogs have) up to 250 million odor receptor cells in their noses," said Dr. Essler Medical Daily in an interview.

Where do humans come from compared to dogs? "Humans have between 5 and 10 million, so it's an order of magnitude larger, and (dogs) also have more of their brains used to process smells," she said.

"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 with a bear in line for you.

Every dog ​​has his day

Just like humans, not all dogs are suitable for every job. And like with humans, fit is of the essence.

"Some dogs are sporadic and fast, and they want to run around really 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) tell you they found it," said Dr. Essler. "It is this relationship with people that drives 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

Creating a team of dogs to track down COVID-19, which is often found in human sweat, doesn't happen overnight. Dog handlers not only have to train dogs in the "nosework" label, 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 keeps secret. Although some VOCs are imperceptible to the human nose, the Journal of Biochemistry reports cases where even humans can identify these smells. People with diabetes who have ketoacidosis, a serious complication of diabetes, sometimes 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' exceptional 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 didn't start until July, but it could make a big difference in the future too.

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