A COVID-19 vaccine is here at long last, but until we can all get the shot, there’s an even cuddlier solution to preventing the spread of the disease: dogs. Canines have a 76 percent to 100 percent accuracy rate at detecting individuals with the coronavirus simply by smelling their sweat samples, according to a just-published study from Paris and Lebanon. Meanwhile, Helsinki and Dubai pooches are now employed to sniff out infected travelers at airports, and a number of cities are also looking to hire their own COVID canine force.
“Of all the jobs that dogs can do and continue to do, this could be the most important one,” said Maria Goodavage, author of the new book “Doctor Dogs: How Our Best Friends Are Becoming Our Best Medicine” (Dutton). “They’re highly accurate, remarkably so.”
In her book, Goodavage details how Fido can sniff out a number of medical issues, such as malaria, deadly bacteria and infections, low blood sugar in diabetics, imminent seizures or cardiac issues, and even very early stage cancers.
“The list of jobs involving a dog’s sense of smell continues to expand,” Goodavage writes. They’re “helping humans in unprecedented ways.”
Tales of dogs’ sixth sense for sickness have fascinated researchers for decades. Back in the 1980s, a London mutt named Baby Boo took a strange, sudden interest in a spot on the back of the leg of her owner, Bonita Whitfield, Goodavage explains in her book. One day, the dog even nipped repeatedly at the spot. Whitfield felt around to touch the area and discovered a black lump. She went to the doctor; a biopsy revealed it was a melanoma. “They’d caught it just in time,” Goodavage writes. “The doctor told her that in another year, the cancer would have spread throughout her body.”
In the 1990s, Florida dermatologist Armand Cognetta enlisted military dog trainer Duane Pickel to see if dogs could be taught to find skin cancer. Pickel trained George, a standard schnauzer who’d previously worked in bomb detection, to sniff out test tubes containing samples of melanoma and rewarded him when he found them. Moving onto real patients, George correctly found a melanoma in four to five out of seven patients. Cognetta and Pickel theorized that the dog might have missed a few diagnoses due to “olfactory distractions,” such as if a patient smoked or hadn’t showered recently. Still, the research showed promise and inspired more scientists to unlock dogs’ medical detective powers.
By 2006, a study showed that dogs were able to differentiate between the breaths of women with breast cancer and those without the disease with roughly 90 percent accuracy. More recently, London’s Medical Detection Dogs were able to reliably sniff out prostate cancer via urine samples 93 percent of the time in a 2015 study of 3,000 patients. Canines have also been taught to find cervical, colorectal, lung, stomach, liver, ovarian, and thyroid cancers — in many cases far sooner than traditional laboratory tests ever could.
“Dogs have been able to find really hard-to-detect cancers, like ovarian cancer, at stage 1, which is almost impossible to do,” writes Goodavage, whose own mother died from that illness in 2003.
But all this doesn’t mean we can soon forego annual mammograms and pap smears for a visit to the golden retriever. Rather, scientists are working with man’s best friend to nail down a specific cancer “scent” which can be detected by a computer, Goodavage writes. One day, devices on our smartphones might be able to alert us to any change in our normal body odor that signals disease. Early detection could drastically reduce the number of cancer deaths, which are expected to total over 606,000 this year in the US alone.
Such a gadget is still a few years off. Until then, don’t be surprised to run into a COVID-sniffing dog the next time you fly somewhere.
“They can be testing up to 250 people an hour per dog,” Goodavage told The Post about COVID canines. “Dogs are our best friends in so many ways.”