Paging Dr. Dog! Another Weapon in the Battle Against COVID-19

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Image courtesy of flickr.com

We often see them in airports, sniffing around for drugs and other questionable substances. Now, it seems, dogs are being trained to use their powerful sniffers (aka snouts) to detect the coronavirus.

How do they do it? First, let’s look at the dog’s olfactory advantage for this work. Humans have a mere six million smell receptors; dogs have as many as 300 million.

Dogs trained in scent detection can discern low levels of what are called volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are found in human blood, breath, urine, and saliva and have been associated with a number of diseases. I hope to write more about these fabulous pups and their detection of other diseases in the near future.

As to our urgent international need, here’s a sampling of some ongoing studies:

In the UK

They’re actually engaged right now in what might be considered the first step toward an airport version of a clinical trial.

There are six dogs, aptly called “The Super Six,” a combo of labrador retrievers and cocker spaniels. The premise is that the dogs will be able to detect the scent of the disease on asymptomatic travelers.

So our future may include appearing at the airport, suitcases ready, passports in hand, and then a cold little nose says, in effect, “No trip for you, buddy! You’re outta here!”

But as a dog worshipper, I can’t think of a happier way to help bring a worldwide pandemic under control.

This effort is backed by the UK government, which has donated funds to a research team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, in collaboration with Durham University and a charity named Medical Detection Dogs.

And the head of the research team, Professor James Logan, who also heads the department of disease control at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, expresses optimism.

He observed in an interview with cnn.com that this work evolved from earlier research findings that people infected with malaria have a specific body odor—and “dogs can be trained to detect that with very high accuracy.”

The training involves dogs’ sniffing face masks and/or nylon socks worn by both individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and those who haven’t.

Why nylon socks? Professor Steve Lindsay, a public health entomologist at the university, acknowledges that it’s a “bit strange,” but their experiences have shown them it’s “a really good way of collecting odors from people and it’s such an easy way to do it.”

In the US (Two Studies) [NOTE: SEE CLARIFICATION BELOW]

Similar research is being done at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet). Same premise: uncover asymptomatic patients, who are most likely to spread the disease. Also: focus on screening in specifically challenging environments for testing, such as hospitals or businesses.

In the Penn Vet study, which began with eight dogs, the dogs were first given saliva and urine samples from COVID-19 positive patients in a lab-oratory (spelled out and hyphenated to avoid confusion with this post’s stars!). Then they were given negative samples.

The researchers plan to begin testing the trained dogs with live humans in July. They’ll test both sensitivity—the ability to correctly identify those who have the disease (true positive rate)—and specificity—the ability to correctly identify those who don’t have the disease (true negative rate).

Cynthia Otto, DVM, PhD, professor of Working Dog Sciences and Sports Medicine and director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, is leading a multidisciplinary group across the University.

According to Otto:

“The potential impact of these dogs and their capacity to detect COVID-19 could be substantial. This study will harness the dog’s extraordinary ability to support the nation’s COVID-19 surveillance systems, with the goal of reducing community spread.”

Another study, at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York State, bears the names of numerous authors. Involving 198 samples of axillary (armpit) sweat collected from various hospitals, the study was conducted with 18 dogs on three sites. It took the dogs between one and four hours to learn to recognize the odor and then four to ten hours to detect positive samples.

In a subset to demonstrate proof-of-concept, the researchers focused on eight dogs that had previously been trained to detect explosives or colon cancer and had now expanded their doggie resumes with this new specialty.

Their task was to pick out the positive sample from among negative or mock (made up) samples. After 368 trials, here are their percentages: four dogs scored 100%; one achieved 83%; another 84%; another 90%, and the eighth dog 94%.

All those percentages were deemed significantly different from what would occur by chance.

Thus,

“We conclude that there is a very high evidence that the armpits sweat odor of COVID-19+ persons is different, and that dogs can detect a person infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

Perhaps, theorizes Annie the English major, that also means that armpit sweat can be added to the bodily substances cited earlier that contain volatile organic compounds.

And in Finland

This article’s title appeals to my weakness for bad puns: “The Finnish COVID dogs’ nose knows!”

At the University of Helsinki, researchers from the veterinary and human medicine faculties are working together. The first dogs have successfully differentiated between the urine samples of patients that have COVID-19 and those that don’t.

The researcher and DogRisk group leader, Anna Hielm-Bjorkman, observed:

“We have solid experience in training disease related scent detection dogs. It was fantastic to see how fast the dogs took to the new smell.”

The preliminary tests have demonstrated that the dogs learned fast and worked fast, outperforming the COVID-19 tests based on molecular approaches.

But now comes the big step, prior to moving the scent detection into practice. They’ll begin a randomized double-blinded setting, “introducing them to a larger number of patient samples that are either positive or negative.

And they’ll throw in a curve ball: some of the negative samples will have other respiratory diseases.

They foresee the many beneficial possibilities, which include identifying infected individuals in nursing or retirement homes, and screening health care workers to discern those who are actually ill, rather than just having been exposed, thereby avoiding unnecessary quarantines.

And, to bring us back to where we began, they’re also looking toward screening at airport checkpoints and other border points.

These are, as far as I can tell, all preliminary studies, with the Finnish study moving closest to peer review status, and the Penn Vet study ready to take a big leap forward in just a few weeks.

But with the dogged determination of researchers, trainers, and humans’ best friends, it certainly looks as though we may soon see a warm and fuzzy side of the successful efforts to contain this terrible pandemic.

Though most of these tests will be processed in lab-oratories, if you were in an airport and given the choice, which would you prefer: a large swab inserted into your nostril, or a tail-wagging canine circling around you once or twice (no petting allowed!)?

Warmest thanks and profound love to my daughter the professional dog trainer, par excellence, who suggested the idea and provided me with the articles that formed the basis of this post.

Annie

CLARIFICATION: The study I attributed above to the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US was based on an abstract bearing its logo. I subsequently learned that the study is, in fact, being conducted in Paris, at the Alfort School of Veterinary Medicine; Ajaccio, France, at the South Corsica Fire and Emergency Dept, and Beirout (sic), Lebanon, at the French-Lebanese University Saint Joseph.

Continue reading “Paging Dr. Dog! Another Weapon in the Battle Against COVID-19”

Another Trip to the Lighter Side…and a Message of Hope

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I guess I’m making a large leap in assuming that a) you haven’t seen this photo before; and b) you’ve had the Zoom online experience that so many of us have been introduced to in this time of social distancing.

At any rate, this image makes me laugh, and I hope you’ll enjoy it too. Even if you haven’t “Zoomed,” with so many of us worldwide living in isolation, I can tell from various posts that there have been some pretty weird changes in our daily routines. For example: It’s 5 pm. Is it really necessary for me to exchange my pajamas for sweat pants and a T-shirt?

I send good wishes to you all, and hope things are as pleasant as possible as we make our way through the specter of the pandemic during this time of Easter, Passover, Vaisakhi, Vishu, the Bengali and Tamil New Years, the Buddhist Theravada New Year, and Spring.

(I just learned that one of the traditions of Theravada is to build sand castles, with the belief that the waves’ washing away the effort symbolizes the removing of one’s mistakes and enables personal renewal. It’s a reminder of our impermanence, which by coincidence was my theme when I wrote this poem quite recently.)

All these occasions call forth the hope for better days ahead–something that whether or not we follow a religion is sorely needed these days. I am especially thinking of those among us who are in pain, mentally and/or physically, or have suffered a loss.

Though we’re separated, we know what we must do to speed the process that will enable us to emerge from this pandemic and be together once again. To that extent, we do have a measure of control, even if it seems that events have overtaken us.

And then, I fervently hope, we can begin the important efforts to work together–locally, nationally, internationally–to make this a more just world, where we care for one another, ensure that extra attention and resources are provided to those who have been hardest hit,  and at last give Mother Nature her due.

Annie

Doggone It! Where’s My Doggie?

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I am severely dog-deprived. I smile at every canine within yards of me and pat any whose companion humans give me permission.

Today I accidentally happened upon a blog post someone wrote about the loss of her pup.  She included a video of him, in his prime, singing what she assured us was “Happy Birthday to You.” It made me weep.

My grandnephew and his fiancée have a dog that might well have been a disaster. Much to our dismay, they acquired him from a pet store, where he’d spent the first six months of his life in a crate.

But he is now a wonderful, lovable mush, nicely trained, and I would dognap him in a millisecond if I could get away with it. 

I’ve heard that rescued dogs are aware of their good fortune and express their gratitude with good humor and special devotion. I don’t know whether there’s science behind this claim, but I choose to believe it.

(I’ve learned, though, that there are clear exceptions. Please bear with me here.)

I do have two wonderful granddogs, as well as a lovely grandcat, but they are not within the daily/hourly stroke-and-cuddle distance necessary for my fixation.  

Are you wondering why I don’t have a dog? My husband, himself a dog aficionado, is emphatic that our fourth dog was our last. To some extent, this is a body-clock-based dispute. He is an early riser who hits the gym daily before 7 am. I am, well, not. 

He maintains that adding the walking and feeding of a dog to his morning routine simply isn’t feasible. I have promised I would arise early, care for this soon-to-be-beloved being, and go back to sleep.

Although he is not seriously hard of hearing, this affirmation has fallen on deaf ears.

In fact, his resistance is based, at least in part, on our experiences with dog #4—a caramel-colored rescue shipped up from the Carolinas that had the sweetest face and warm brown eyes.

But we ignored what we later realized was a warning sign from our first meeting with Lexi. She was fine with me, but she barked at my husband—a lot. 

The adoption folks assured us it was because of his hat. He removed it. She persisted.

Nevertheless, we were both determined to find a furry companion two years after the loss of our treasured Vic—a collie-shepherd gentle giant—also a rescue, a dog we knew at the outset was ours. Or he knew and chose us: as we walked by his wire enclosure,  he stood up on his hind legs and wrapped his arms, that is forelegs, around us, holding tight with his paws. 

In retrospect, we should have compared that scene with our introduction to Lexi. In retrospect, we should have done a lot of things differently. In retrospect, we should have said, “Sorry; this isn’t the dog for us.”

Instead, we took Lexi home, and thus began 5 months of hell and thousands of dollars spent on training—lots and lots of training, beds (she shredded them), toys (she destroyed them), the best quality food to make sure she got all her nutrients.

We tried a variety of leads and leashes to see what might gently but effectively restrain her from taking off after squirrels on the multiple daily walks we gave her to ensure she used up enough energy to settle down. 

And then there was the dog park visit when my daughter—a professional dog trainer—and her husband were in town visiting and trying to help. Free to roam off the leash, Lexi instead attacked my son-in-law’s brand-new coat, tearing a large gash that was unmendable.

She terrorized our poor cat, who’d been Vic’s best friend. (I’ve written about their relationship previously.) That meant we had to keep Lexi and the cat apart with all sorts of gates and other paraphernalia.

Oh, yes—another thing. Although her papers stated that she’d been spayed, the rescue service representative told us she couldn’t find the scar. But no worries: if Lexi were to go into heat, they would cover the costs of subsequently spaying her. So it wasn’t a complete surprise…

We then had to be on the lookout for the neighborhood rakes that were drawn to Lexi’s newly acquired aphrodisia perfume. Here, the elements were not in our favor.

Although we had a fenced-in yard, it was a rough winter, and an enormous snow pile provided just the boost Lexi needed to scale the fence. Solution: quickly surrounding the yard with a much higher fence. Ka-ching! Add that to the toll on our daughters’ inheritances.

Once Lexi’s heat period was over, the spaying occurred—followed, of course, by the large plastic cone she had to wear around her neck to prevent her from tearing the stitches. Just another source of misery for her and for us.

But the issue that makes me understand my husband’s resistance most clearly was the “game” that Lexi ultimately invented.

For several nights, as we were having dinner, she walked around the table to my husband’s chair, pushed her adorable snout through the open slats, and nipped his behind. She then slowly walk away, seemingly very pleased with herself. Our remedy was to isolate her in part of the kitchen, an act that increased her frustration.

Lexi was not without redeeming social values. She was extremely quick to learn commands (except in the presence of squirrels), and she loved scavenger hunts for treats, which she readily found wherever we hid them. 

Despite her charms, why we put up with all this for so long escapes me now. But we were dog people: we figured eventually we’d get it right. When our dog-training daughter said sympathetically, “You’ve done everything you could,” we knew what our next steps had to be. 

The rescue service found a foster home for Lexi, and we drove her there with considerable sadness. During the long drive to a rural area, I sat with her in the back seat, a bit teary as she placed her head in my lap and looked up at me with those lovely, expressive eyes.

We left her with a family that had several other dogs and children and wide open spaces where she could run around. She didn’t look back as we drove away.

We recognized, at long last, that Lexi and we were simply not a good fit. She needed a more active life and more diverse companionship than we could provide.  We hope she eventually found both in what the animal rescue community calls a “forever home.”

I have a friend with a connection to a group that places German Shepherds. These are wonderful dogs but they’ve failed guide dog training for some reason that would not prevent them from being fine pets. 

I am waiting for the right moment to broach this possible source of the dog of my dreams to my husband. Do you think he’ll bite?

Annie