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How Good Is the Sniff Test for COVID-19?

Dogs can learn to detect COVID-19 with a sniff test. They are quick and reasonably accurate, so they could help in some challenging conditions.
How Good Is the Sniff Test for COVID-19?
Man in military uniform with German shepherd dog outdoors, closeup view

One of the ongoing problems with the COVID-19 pandemic has been that people have had trouble finding tests. They’ve also been challenged getting the results due to long wait times. Now, a German study suggests that dogs could use their sensitive noses to do a sniff test (BMC Infectious Diseases, July 23, 2020). The dogs are approximately as accurate as a quick nasal swab test. 

How the Sniff Test Was Developed:

Investigators trained eight dogs attached to the German Army for a week. They rewarded the canines with a ball or a bit of food when they signaled that they had detected saliva from a COVID-19 patient. Following the training, the dogs were tested on more than 1,000 samples. For this study, the handlers did not know whether the samples presented were from infected or healthy people.

The dogs had an accuracy rate of 94%. They correctly identified 157 positive samples and 792 negative ones. Dogs varied somewhat among themselves as to accuracy, and they did make mistakes on 63 samples overall. They identified 30 positive samples as negative. Conversely, they failed to properly reject 33 negative samples. In comparison, the quick nasal swab test from Abbott appears to be about 91% accurate.

How the Sniff Test Might Be Used: 

The scientists note that dogs can apparently detect metabolic changes triggered by infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Because they work quickly, dogs might excel in situations where clinical testing is too slow or cumbersome.

The researchers suggest that trained sniffer dogs like these could help in crowded areas where quick detection would be at a premium: 

“This method could be employed in public areas such as airports, sport events, borders or other mass gatherings as an alternative or addition to laboratory testing, thus helping to prevent further spreading of the virus or further outbreaks.”

The investigators included a very short video of one of the dogs (Labrador retriever seven) performing the test. (It is Additional File 1 in the publication.) If you are interested in learning more about how dogs use their olfactory abilities to help humans, you may be interested in Cat Warren’s fascinating book, What the Dog Knows.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Jendrny P et al, "Scent dog identification of samples from COVID-19 patients – a pilot study." BMC Infectious Diseases, July 23, 2020. DOI https://doi.org/10.1186/s12879-020-05281-3
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