Finnish researchers look to dogs to sniff out coronavirus

The dogs were previously trained to sniff out breast and prostate cancer, but quickly learned the new skills in just three weeks.

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Picture of medical scent dog in training / Credit: University of Helsinki

Researchers at the University of Helsinki are investigating whether dogs’ sense of smell could be a faster and more accurate test for coronavirus.

Scientists from the university’s medical and veterinary science departments have joined forced to see if dogs can detect people infected with Covid-19 by the smell of their urine.

In preliminary studies, trained dogs have been able to differentiate between urine from someone infected with coronavirus, and a healthy person.

“We started with two dogs because we wanted to be sure they don’t get sick and it might be dangerous for both the handler and the dogs, and we were surprised that it was an easy scent for them” explains Anna Hielm-Björkman, Associate Professor of Animal Clinical Research at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

“We’ve been doing it for three weeks and so far nobody has become sick. We have been tested, and we and the dogs are negative, but also the dogs think we are negative” she adds.

The dogs involved in the research had previously been trained to detect breast cancer and prostate cancer based on scent profiles, and Professor Hielm-Björkman says at the start of each day they just need to be ‘calibrated’ with treats to know which puzzle they’re working on that session: cancer or coronavirus.

“Dogs are very good at learning new things, and it really seemed the dogs we re-trained were happy to learn something new, that cancer seemed for them to be a bit deja vu already” she tells News Now Finland.

In the University’s preliminary tests, the researchers found the dogs are able to identify someone with coronavirus before they are showing any clinical symptoms, and even before a normal test would come back with a positive result.

In Finland scent dogs are usually trained to identify mould in buildings, but are also used to sniff out cockroaches, bed bugs or other insect infestations. But there is increasing awareness of their unique skills in clinical settings as well, where they’re being trained to identify the precursors for patients with chronic pain, and alert them in advance when they need to take medication.

The Helsinki team is not alone working with scent dogs to detect coronavirus. Researchers in the UK and at Penn State University in America are also carrying out similar research.