Dogs Detecting Disease
Lucy Aylmer discusses how medical dogs may be utilised in the fight against coronavirus, and their potential pitfalls too.
Dogs and their incredible sense of smell have often been used for human benefit, with examples ranging from sniffing out bombs to identifying diseases such as Cancer and Parkinson’s. Medical dogs have recently been found to help detect coronavirus symptoms, and have the potential to be deployed in just 6 weeks time, after preliminary training. Disease detecting dogs not only have the capability to rival testing technologies, but also have impressive efficiency rates with the potential to test 750 people an hour. This efficiency could greatly improve upon the current 8,000 tests a day and increase the likelihood of achieving Boris Johnson’s 250,000 test target if used in combination with other forms of testing.
The charity Medical Detection Dogs are collaborating with a range of institutions such as the London School of Hygiene and Durham University to further develop the training of dogs to detect disease. Contributing dogs to the germ-warfare effort has potential in terms of reducing the re-emergence of COVID-19. This will be of particular importance once borders start to reopen and the possibility of infected travellers bringing coronavirus back into countries becomes a risk. Deploying dogs at airport security to test whether travellers are carrying coronavirus could prohibit exacerbating the disease further, which was one of the initial causes of the rapid growth and uncontrollable characteristics of COVID-19.
This all sounds very promising but, as dog owners will know, training a dog is not at all easy and can be a laborious task taking many hours and even spanning months. Justifiably, therefore, questions about how to implement the training are bound to arise. Dogs who have previously been used to sniff elevated levels of signature volatile compounds associated with disease growth are thought to be the ones deployed to combat COVID-19. Under the careful guidance of Medical Detection Dogs, these clever canines will be trained to recognise smells and subtle changes in temperature of the skin, and thus identify if someone has a fever. The trick with training is to use previously trained medical dogs who have the pre-existing skills to respond to this new, challenging task.
… these clever canines will be trained to recognise smells and subtle changes in temperature of the skin
However, whilst such an initiative lists efficiency, accuracy and practicality to its name, there are also drawbacks to the tune of £1,000,000. Medical Detection Dogs have set up a fundraising page requiring a fundraising total of £1,000,000 in order for these ambitions to be achieved. In a time of great uncertainty and mass government spending on aid for hospitals and redundant employees, finding the money will be difficult. Governments may choose to view this method of testing as trivial and unreliable, especially when concerning such a serious disease. The real question is: can governments take the risk in relying on animals over technology for combating life-threatening diseases?