Scientists across the globe have determined that dogs can identify COVID-19 by its scent, and here in the U. S. dogs are being trained at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine to sniff it out. Using saliva and urine from individuals who are COVID-19 positive (the virus has been inactivated in the samples but its odor remains intact) and from those who are COVID-19 negative, trainers are teaching dogs to notice the difference. This skill could be hugely helpful in nursing homes (sniffing out cases that have yet to present symptoms amongst a population that is particularly vulnerable), to sniffing out infected persons in airports and other public places where crowds in close proximity pose a hazard of rapid spreading of the disease.
The pluses of using dogs for this work? There are many, including the fact that unlike lab tests, the COVID-19 “findings” of a trained dog are immediate. In addition, they are non-invasive, and less expensive.
We humans have benefitted from dogs’ acute sense of smell in countless ways across millennia. According to a story by Peter Tyson on NOVA, “dogs’ sense of smell overpowers our own by orders of magnitude—it’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute.” This trait is why Dr. Cynthia Otto, director of University of Pennsylvania’s Vet Working Dog Center, noted in a July 2020 interview, “I think of dogs as seeing trough their noses or smelling in color… it really gives them a perspective that we can’t even begin to understand.”